Skip to main content

Gibraltar: UK-EU Negotiations

Volume 747: debated on Monday 11 March 2024

(Urgent Question): Will the Minister make a statement on UK negotiations with the EU in respect of Gibraltar?

The Minister for Europe, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), is currently in Gibraltar, where he is meeting the Chief Minister to continue our joint efforts to conclude a treaty with the European Union. With the Government of Gibraltar, he will also be assessing contingency plans in the case of a non-negotiated outcome. His visit is also an opportunity to reiterate once again the UK’s steadfast commitment to Gibraltar.

In December 2020, the UK, with Gibraltar and Spain, agreed a political framework on how a future agreement between the UK and the European Union in respect of Gibraltar would function in the interests of all parties. This represented the first stage of a two-part process whereby the EU would examine a request from Spain in agreement with the UK to initiate the procedure for the negotiation of a separate UK-EU agreement in respect of Gibraltar. The key objective of the political framework is to safeguard Gibraltar’s prosperity by ensuring that people and goods can move easily between Gibraltar and the surrounding communities. This is important for the whole region’s economy.

The UK-EU negotiations began in October 2021, and 17 rounds of formal negotiations have taken place in Brussels and London. These have been supported by numerous technical sessions as well as official and ministerial engagements. The Foreign Secretary has met Commission Vice-President Šefčovič and, separately, Spanish Foreign Minister Albares, and underlined the UK’s commitment to concluding a UK-EU treaty. The UK is steadfast in our support for Gibraltar and will not agree to anything that compromises sovereignty. While negotiations have been technically and politically complex, significant progress has been made, and both the UK and EU have presented texts throughout the negotiations.

Agreement can only be achieved by respecting the balance of the political framework. Throughout this process the UK Government have worked side by side with the Government of Gibraltar. Throughout our negotiations with the EU, the Government of Gibraltar have formed part of our negotiating team. Alongside our joint efforts to conclude negotiations, the Foreign Secretary and the Chief Minister agreed that it remained prudent to continue working together to ensure that robust plans were in place for all scenarios, including a non-negotiated outcome. Alongside the UK-EU negotiations, the UK, with Gibraltar, has maintained a regular dialogue with Spain. It is in everyone’s interest to conclude a UK-EU treaty to help secure future prosperity for Gibraltar and the surrounding region. This can be done without prejudice to our respective positions on sovereignty and jurisdiction.

As I mentioned, the Minister for Europe is in Gibraltar today meeting the Chief Minister and Deputy Chief Minister of Gibraltar. This is a continuation of the close working relationship between our two Governments, both in our efforts to conclude an agreement and to ensure that robust contingency plans are in place. We are unable to provide a running commentary on the negotiations, but I can assure the whole House that the UK’s position remains as it has been throughout: we will not agree to anything that compromises sovereignty. The UK stands steadfast in our support for Gibraltar and in ensuring that its sovereignty is safeguarded.

On Friday, the Minister for Europe wrote to me as Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee. He is in Gibraltar today and, following the granting of this urgent question, and to prove its value, I received an urgent letter two hours ago from the Chief Minister of Gibraltar proposing a meeting with my Committee next Wednesday. The Rock was not covered by the Brexit withdrawal agreement or the trade and co-operation agreement, at the insistence of the European Commission. Temporary arrangements have persisted since, based around a political framework agreed between the UK and Spanish Governments in December 2020. The Government have exclusive competence to negotiate a treaty with the EU on the question of Gibraltar as an overseas territory. My Committee travelled to the Rock in 2022 and had meetings with the Chief Minister and his colleagues in Gibraltar.

I was disturbed to hear from the Minister that what appears to have been agreed in principle between the UK and the EU with regard to Gibraltar’s future would include EU Schengen border checks being performed on Gibraltar; Gibraltar aligning with EU rules to ensure a so-called level playing field; and joint UK-Spanish management of Gibraltar’s airport and, therefore, defence issues. If so, what the Government have agreed crosses their own negotiating red lines, as first set out to my Committee in September 2021. This risks setting a dangerous precedent for the UK’s overseas territories and Crown dependencies, allowing a foreign power to set the rules of our engagement and diminishing the constitutionally entrusted role that the UK plays.

There are limited avenues for the people of Gibraltar to hold the UK Government to account and, given the Government’s apparent eagerness to agree a legal text, I am concerned that what has been announced will not allow those who hold blue residency cards to cross into Spain relatively unhindered as they have done in the past. Schengen border controls on Gibraltar’s soil could mean that blue card holders become subject to the EU’s 90/180-day rule and, soon, the EU’s entry/exit system.

There are some serious questions. On sovereignty and defence, will the Government rule out agreeing to Schengen border checks on Gibraltar’s soil, ceding UK control of Gibraltar’s airport and aligning with EU rules? What are the Government doing to ensure the rights of Gibraltar’s blue card holders? Do the Government intend to do all this through primary legislation? If not, why not? Finally, will the people of Gibraltar be offered a domestic referendum, as they were in 2002 and 2006?

I reassure the House that the Government’s position with respect to Gibraltar has not changed. We will not agree to anything that compromises sovereignty. We continue to work side by side with the Government of Gibraltar, and we will only agree to terms with which the Government of Gibraltar are content.

I know that the Chief Minister has appeared before the European Scrutiny Committee and has provided evidence in respect of our proposed arrangement with the Schengen area. Our approach has not changed. The 2020 political framework notes that that there will be a “level playing field” provision in the treaty to agree mutual standards on matters such as labour, the environment and taxation, which are relatively normal elements of trade agreements with the EU or anyone else.

On Gibraltar’s airport, we are prepared to explore practical and technical options to facilitate flights between Gibraltar and the EU. The UK will only agree to terms with which the Government of Gibraltar are content, and we will not agree to anything that compromises sovereignty.

It is worth highlighting that, in his letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash), the Chief Minister said that

“the UK and Gibraltar have never worked more closely together in delivering the outcome that the People of Gibraltar want.”

That is how it should be.

I thank the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) for securing this urgent question. I draw attention to my declaration as a shadow Minister and a member of the all-party parliamentary group on Gibraltar.

Let me be clear that Labour’s commitment to Gibraltar and, indeed, our wider family of overseas territories is unwavering. Since I have been in this role, I have had the pleasure to meet Chief Minister Fabian Picardo and his Ministers, and with other Gibraltarian parliamentarians. I have visited the Rock and the Campo, and I have discussed these matters in Madrid, too.

Gibraltar is integral to the UK’s history and future, and it has robust democratic institutions and a dynamic economy. It also remains an important base for UK forces, so I make it clear that there would be no change if there were a new Government in the UK. The sovereignty and self-determination of Gibraltar are not up for debate. We believe in the right of the people of Gibraltar to choose their own future, as they have made clear, and this must be the bedrock of any negotiations with Spain, which is equally a close friend and ally of the UK. It is also a critical partner in NATO and in many other respects, so we hope and believe that an agreement can be reached to the mutual benefit of Gibraltar, Spain, the UK and the EU.

These negotiations have gone on longer than anticipated, and it is critical that the Government now work hard to get a good deal over the line that provides the people, businesses and communities on both sides of the border with the clarity and stability they need.

I have a few short questions. Can the Minister explain in a little more detail where the negotiations are on some of the key issues in relation to the movement of goods, law enforcement and citizens’ right? Secondly, can he give us a little more detail on the Europe Minister’s visit to Gibraltar today, and indeed on any recent discussions he has had with Spain and the EU on outstanding matters? It would be helpful if the Europe Minister made a statement on his return from Gibraltar.

Finally, what support are the Government giving to Gibraltar on NNO contingency planning? However much we do not want to see a non-negotiated outcome, it is important that we are prepared for all outcomes. Gibraltar has a distinctive and proud place in British history, and I hope the Government and all parties can get a deal that works for Gibraltar’s people.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. We agree that we need to stand steadfast in our support for Gibraltar. I say again that we will not agree to anything that compromises sovereignty. It is important that today’s conversations are taking place between the Minister for Europe and the Chief Minister, setting out the future discussions and looking at what might be—we hope not—a non-negotiated outcome. We will be working closely with the Government in Gibraltar and we will continue to see what support they might need in any scenario that might arise, but we are working in good faith towards a deal.

I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as chair of the all-party group on Gibraltar. Does the Minister recognise that our group has visited Gibraltar not once but repeatedly since the Brexit process and has kept in regular touch with the people on the Rock, their businesses and the Government of Gibraltar? Does he also agree that, ultimately, the only people who are best placed to judge what is in the interests of Gibraltar are its British people and that the first duty of a British Government must be to protect their interests at all times? Does he also agree that the very close co-operation between His Majesty’s Government of the United Kingdom and that of Gibraltar is recognised on both sides and that in no circumstances are either side prepared to cross any red lines, but that a pragmatic solution, recognising Gibraltar’s unique geographical position, is necessary and achievable? Will he commit to the Government’s renewed determination to achieve that within those proper principles that we all stand by?

I recognise the important work of the all-party group under my hon. Friend’s stewardship as chair and the important work that he has done in engaging with the people of Gibraltar and the Government there. He rightly says that there are opportunities not just to protect sovereignty but to ensure future prosperity for Gibraltar and its people. I restate that, as was made clear in the letter sent to my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash), the UK Government and Gibraltar have

“never worked more closely together”.

That is entirely right, given the seriousness of, and where we are in, the negotiating process.

I am delighted to hear the cross-party outbreak of support for nations choosing their own future, as that is unusual in this place. In recent years, the UK has managed to trash its international reputation. Will the Minister let us know how much Brexit has cost Gibraltar so far? Will he promise this House that the Government will this time stick to their agreements, the statements they made to the Committee chaired by the hon. Member for Stone and those positions that they held, and negotiate in the interests of the people of Gibraltar and not in those of ideological power trips?

We continue to work hard in these negotiations. As I said, we are working in good faith, and to uphold sovereignty and to work towards future prosperity, which is vital for the people of Gibraltar and for the region more widely. We are optimistic about those prospects, but we are planning for all scenarios.

Will the Minister assure this House that the UK Government will not agree to any treaty that compromises UK sovereignty and will remain steadfast in their support for Gibraltar? There is a large Jewish community in Gibraltar and significant antisemitism from the Spanish Government, which has led to a recall of diplomatic personnel only three months ago. Does he agree that it is important that in our negotiations with the EU and anyone else the sovereignty of all of the people of Gibraltar is respected?

I absolutely agree that we need to respect that sovereignty. I stand shoulder to shoulder with my right hon. and learned Friend in saying that antisemitism has no place in our society.

I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I agree with the Minister that we cannot compromise on the sovereignty issues that Gibraltarians hold so close to their hearts. He was right to point out the practical and technical options in respect of the airport, which also serves as RAF Gibraltar, but will he outline more about the options he is thinking about?

The point I made about practical and technical options is in relation to facilitating flights between Gibraltar and the EU more widely. The UK will only agree to terms that the Government of Gibraltar are content with and will not agree to anything that compromises Gibraltar’s sovereignty.

Can the Minister explain to us his assessment of the attitude of the European Union towards the continuing sovereignty of Gibraltar, bearing in mind Spain’s long-standing ambition to infringe that sovereignty?

Our negotiations are with the EU. We continue to take those negotiations forward and will do, as I have said repeatedly, with the sovereignty of the people of Gibraltar at the front of our minds.

I thank the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) for securing this urgent question. Alongside supporting the sovereignty of the people of Gibraltar and their right to self-determination, we need to recognise that 96% of them did not vote for Brexit. When he talks about giving them a voice, perhaps he needs to listen to why they need that voice. I am struck by what the Minister said about the value of a level playing field and the concept of an alignment of trade, economic rights and standards encompassing that level playing field. For the avoidance of doubt, will he clarify that there is no conflict between supporting sovereignty and supporting alignment? That might have lessons for other negotiations coming forward in this field.

Level playing field provisions are normal elements of trade agreements with the EU, or anyone else. In line with what the UK agreed with the EU under the trade and co-operation agreement, commitments should be bilateral and reciprocal, not based on the rules of either party.

By my reckoning, my hon. Friend has said no fewer than five times that the British Government will not agree to anything that compromises British sovereignty. However, it is clear from the letter from the Minister for Europe, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), that travellers arriving in Gibraltar will have to pass through Schengen immigration arrangements. How can it be the case that British travellers, arriving in British territory, will have to deliver their passports for inspection to a foreign border official and that not be incompatible with British sovereignty?

We are seeking a mobility arrangement with the Schengen area to facilitate flow at the Gibraltar-Spain border. The arrangement would remove checks from the Gibraltar-Spain border. Instead, those arriving in Gibraltar would pass through Gibraltar immigration, followed by Schengen immigration. [Interruption.] The exact details of arrangements form part of the ongoing negotiation. In line with the December 2020 political framework, as a default those travelling to Gibraltar would undergo both Gibraltar immigration controls and Schengen entry checks.

During my visits to Gibraltar, including recently with the excellent armed forces parliamentary scheme, I appreciated not merely that Gibraltar is an incredible place, but also the firm commitment of Gibraltarians to uphold their sovereignty. What assessment has the Minister made of the ongoing impact of the uncertainty on the economy of the Rock? What steps are being taken to catalyse growth in the region?

That is why we are taking forward these negotiations, which are about future prosperity and protecting sovereignty. That is fundamental and the Government in Gibraltar are keen to work with us on that. They have said that they are working in good faith and feel that our relationship is stronger than ever.

As the House will be aware, Goole is twinned with Gibraltar—the Minister looks shocked; I am sure he realises that it is a match made in heaven. I was in Gibraltar on Friday, visiting the Parliament and meeting the Mayor, Carmen Gomez. The very clear message sent to me on this issue was the importance of a resolution, not least because of the large number of Spanish workers who make their living in Gibraltar. That is a point worth emphasising in the negotiations. Will the Minister confirm that any arrangement will not make any difference to the rights of a British national to live and work in Gibraltar?

I do not know why I looked shocked, because it is pretty obvious from my hon. Friend’s hard work that where Goole leads, the rest of the UK follows. As I said, we are working hard on the border issues at the airport and more widely. The aim is to reduce the friction that will take place.

I thank the Minister for his answers and the clear commitment that he has given. We have always had a great relationship with Gibraltar. I am a big supporter of that, as are others in the Chamber. It is so important that our relationship is maintained with strength and pride, as we are able to work better together. With the Minister ensure that all efforts are made to continue our much-valued relationship with Gibraltar, and that we do all that we can to support it, as a British overseas territory, with the same rights as everywhere else?

I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s commitment to Gibraltar, and that of most people in the Chamber. A huge amount of work is done, not least by Mr Speaker, to foster the relationship, which we are very proud of. The hon. Gentleman can be assured that we will continue work in that way. The best feedback that we received today from the Chief Minister was that the Government of Gibraltar believe that they have a good working relationship with us—probably the best that we have had. We will continue to work together in their interests on that basis.

What is my hon. Friend’s assessment of the joint declaration signed with the British overseas territories? Does it provide, in his view, the right basis to work with them more closely in future, including Gibraltar? Given the threats faced by Britain and her allies around the world, does he agree that our overseas territories are more important than ever?

I completely agree on the latter point—no question. The joint declaration sets out a more modern framework for our relationship with the overseas territories. We will set out a strategy for the overseas territories with the overseas territories over the months ahead. Then we will move on to partnership compacts. We need a more modern relationship where the accountabilities are clear, not just between the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the overseas territories, but across the whole width of Whitehall. Members on both sides of the House want to see that. It is entirely appropriate in the world that we work in today.

Having spent two and a half years engaged with Gibraltar in the Department for Exiting the European Union, and chairing the joint ministerial council for the overseas territories in that process, I was very glad to hear the Minister confirm that a Minister is in Gibraltar talking to the Chief Minister directly. Does he agree that, as well as reiterating our position on sovereignty, it is important that we show respect for the views of the people of Gibraltar, both in their determination to remain British and in electing their own Government? We must continue, as the Chief Minister said, to work hand in glove with the Chief Minister and the Government of Gibraltar.

Understood. Given his experience, my hon. Friend knows that these matters are very important, very technical and have taken time. We absolutely need to work hand in glove and shoulder to shoulder with our friends in Gibraltar to make further progress, as we seem to be right now, although we prepare for all eventualities.

I listened carefully to what the Minister said, but I fear that there are still many questions to be answered around sovereignty, which was ably raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones), particularly regarding what it means for blue card holders on the Rock. When the agreement is made between the Governments, will the Minister ensure that the European Scrutiny Committee and the whole House have a chance to scrutinise that agreement fully, so that we can come to a conclusion ourselves on those questions?

One of the principal objectives of the treaty is to provide for the fluid movement of all people in Gibraltar across the border with Spain, and of course there will be scrutiny. The Chief Minister said that he would be very willing to appear in front of the European Scrutiny Committee, as will the Minister for Europe in the near future.