While corks may have exploded in London and Brussels at the end of a four-year saga known as Brexit, there is still a rocky speck of British soil in limbo.
Gibraltar, a British colony jutting out of the southern tip of the Spanish peninsula, was not included in the Brexit trade deal announced on Christmas Eve between the European Union and the United Kingdom to reorganize trade and trade relations between the now 27-member bloc and the first nation to leave the group.
The deadline for Gibraltar remains January 1, when a transitional period regulating the short border between Gibraltar and Spain expires. If no agreement is reached, there are serious concerns that a rigid border will cause disruptions to workers, tourists, and major business connections on both sides.
Spain managed to convince the EU to separate the Gibraltar issue from the big Brexit negotiations, meaning that Madrid is handling all the talks directly with its counterparts in Gibraltar and London.
Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha González Laya said on Thursday that if an agreement is not reached, she fears a repeat of the long lines of truckers stranded at the English Channel crossing last week.
“We don’t have much time, and the scenes of chaos in the UK should remind us that we must continue working to reach an agreement on Gibraltar,” González Laya told Spanish state broadcaster RTVE.
“The Spanish want one, the people of Gibraltar want one, now the UK needs one too. Political will is needed.”
Throughout the Brexit talks, Spain has insisted that it wants to comment on the future of Gibraltar.
The Rock was ceded to Great Britain in 1713, but Spain has never abandoned its claim to sovereignty over it. For three centuries, the strategic upwelling of high ground has given British navies dominance of the narrow sea lane from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean.
“Neither party is going to renounce its sovereignty claims, but we must put that aside to reach an agreement that makes life easier for those who live on both sides of the border,” González Laya said.
Negotiations with the United Kingdom are ongoing, González Laya said on Monday, adding that he believes “an agreement in principle is perfectly possible” by the end of the year.
“The best sign that Spain is really trying to reach an agreement is that it is not discussing (the negotiations) in public,” he said during an online press conference.
More than 15,000 people live in Spain and work in Gibraltar, representing approximately 50 per cent of Gibraltar’s workforce. Gibraltar’s population of approximately 34,000 was overwhelmingly against Britain leaving the European Union. In the 2016 Brexit referendum in the UK, 96 per cent of voters in Gibraltar supported staying on the continental bloc which they feel gives them more leverage to deal with the government in Madrid.
The territory still remembers how, in 1969, the Spanish dictator, General Francisco Franco, slammed the border in an attempt to ruin Gibraltar’s economy.
Gibraltar’s Chief Minister Fabian Picardo said the post-Brexit trade deal “is a great relief given the potential difficulties a no-deal Brexit could have created for the UK and the European Union.”
But he added that his territory is still at risk.
“This agreement does not cover Gibraltar. For us, and for the people of the Campo de Gibraltar around us, the clock is ticking,” Picardo said in a statement.
“We continue to work, hand in hand with the United Kingdom, to finalize the negotiation with Spain of an agreement for a proposed treaty between the EU and the United Kingdom in relation to Gibraltar,” he said.
Picardo recently told Spanish radio Cadena SER that “a fashionable Schengen agreement would be the most positive outcome” to facilitate the 30 million annual border crossings between Gibraltar and Spain.
Europe’s Schengen area consists of some two dozen countries that have agreed to remove general travel controls within the group, although some local controls have been reintroduced due to the pandemic. Britain is not in the Schengen group.
The government of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson also said it is committed to finding a solution that includes “ensuring the fluidity of the border, which is clearly in the best interests of the communities living on both sides.”