Britain strikes last-minute deal to keep Gibraltar border open

The British territory connected to mainland Spain will remain part of the Shengen area

Britain has reached a deal with Spain for Gibraltar to join the Schengen open border zone, maintaining free-flowing movement to and from the Spanish mainland.

The deal was announced by Spanish foreign minister Arancha González just hours before the Brexit deadline of midnight on December 31, at which point border checks would have been introduced, restricting the flow of goods and people.

“The border fence is to be demolished,” said Ms González on Thursday. “We are knocking down the border to build an area of shared prosperity – that is the message from this agreement,” she added

Under the deal struck on Thursday, Frontex, the EU’s border force, will “assist Spain” in controlling security at Gibraltar’s airport and port for a transition period of four years. Sources close to the negotiations said that the presence of Spanish security forces on Gibraltarian soil was a major sticking point.

However, Ms González emphasised the fact that Spain would be responsible for the application of Schengen rules in the territory as it is a signatory of the European open-border treaty, while Britain is not. She would not be drawn on the exact details of whether Spanish agents would be involved in border security in Gibraltar or what might happen at the end of the four-year transition period.

The minister said that Spain was satisfied with this in-principle agreement and was now handing over to the EU to finalise the details with the UK over the next six months.

The current rules regarding movement in and out of Gibraltar and Gibraltarians’ existing rights to circulate in Spain and use healthcare services is to be maintained in the meantime.

As talks over the post-Brexit relationship between Gibraltar and Spain approached the New Year’s Eve midnight deadline, residents of the territory had feared their livelihoods would be disrupted by friction at the border.

On Wednesday Spain issued a decree with a package of temporary mitigation measures to ease the transition process for UK citizens and Gibraltarians, including the continued validity of UK driving licences for six months and the possibility of using Spanish hospitals, providing the British government offers reciprocal rights to Spanish nationals visiting the UK.

The approximately 15,000 people, mostly Spaniards, who cross the border to work in Gibraltar each day will be able to continue to enter quickly without joining potentially long queues for passport checks as long as they have registered their status.

Gibraltar was not part of the post-Brexit trade deal that was reached between Britain and the European Union last week. Spain has an effective veto on the Brexit trade deal applying to the Rock.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said: “Today, working side by side with the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, and following intensive discussions with the Spanish government, we reached agreement on a political framework to form the basis of a separate treaty between the UK and the EU regarding Gibraltar.

“We will now send this to the European Commission, in order to initiate negotiations on the formal treaty.

“In the meantime, all sides are committed to mitigating the effects of the end of the Transition Period on Gibraltar, and in particular ensure border fluidity, which is clearly in the best interests of the people living on both sides.

“We remain steadfast in our support for Gibraltar and its sovereignty. I am grateful to Foreign Minister Laya and her team for their positive and constructive approach. We have a warm and strong relationship with Spain, and we look forward to building on it in 2021.”

Gibraltar Chief Minister Fabian Picardo gave assurances that nothing in the agreement compromised Gibraltar’s position on sovereignty. Asked whether Spanish security forces would eventually be deployed in the territory under the agreement, Mr Picardo said: “People should not be concerned about that.”

Asked how Gibraltar could now guarantee its security given that the border checkpoint between the Rock and Spain would disappear, Mr Picardo said that there would still be a “policing presence” in the narrow strip of land between Gibraltar and the Spanish town of La Línea.

Mr Picardo said that while there would not be a formal checkpoint between Gibraltar and Spain, enhanced electronic surveillance technology would be deployed to control people entering the territory.

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