Spain will not use the Brexit negotiations to pursue its sovereignty aspirations, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said on Thursday during a press conference in which he also appeared to signal his government’s readiness to engage in dialogue with Gibraltar.
Asked about sovereignty and Brexit discussions relating to the Rock, Mr Rajoy spoke of future conversations “with” Gibraltar, rather than ‘about’ Gibraltar, although he did not elaborate. If such engagement materialized it would be a significant development given the Partido Popular’s past reticence for direct contact with Gibraltar.
Mr Rajoy was speaking to Spanish reporters after EU leaders cleared a deal on Britain’s 21-month transition to Brexit and approved guidelines designed to deliver a “balanced, ambitious and wide-ranging” free trade agreement with the UK.
As expected, the guidelines also included a reference to Gibraltar in apparent deference to Spain, which has been offered a veto by the EU on the Rock’s future relationship with the bloc.
While the guidelines include Gibraltar within the territorial scope of the withdrawal agreement and transition arrangements, they also add an asterisked footnote referencing Spain’s veto.
In a declaration welcoming the guidelines, the European Council underlined Spain’s position “notably as regards Gibraltar” and insisted that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”.
While the UK insists that Gibraltar must be part of the withdrawal and transition arrangements, the EU says they can only be applied to the Rock with Spain’s prior consent as agreed with the UK.
On Thursday Rajoy said his government had already embarked on “bilateral conversations” with the UK on this issue and that these were “progressing satisfactorily”.
The UK Government – Gibraltar is part of the EU with the UK as member state – regards those conversations as part of its wider bilateral engagement with other EU countries.
The discussions with Madrid touch on many issues of importance to the UK and Spain, not just Gibraltar. Additionally, the UK Government has stressed that whenever the conversations touch on Gibraltar, the Gibraltar Government has been closely involved in preparing the UK position.
Mr Rajoy appeared to suggest that Spain would be willing to go further and discuss Gibraltar-related matters directly with Gibraltarian officials as part of that process.
“The conversations with Gibraltar will not deal with the issue of sovereignty because one thing is Brexit and another is that we maintain our position, as could not be otherwise and as everyone understands,” he said, when asked if Spain had now left the issue of sovereignty “totally to one side”.
“Right now we are talking about Brexit and the issue of sovereignty is not being addressed here.”