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Volume 782: debated on Monday 3 April 2017

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government if they will make a statement on the developments surrounding the future of Gibraltar.

My Lords, we are steadfast in our support of Gibraltar. We are firm in our commitment never to enter arrangements under which the people of Gibraltar would pass under the sovereignty of another state against their wishes, or to enter into a process of sovereignty negotiations with which Gibraltar is not content. We are clear that Gibraltar is covered by our exit negotiations and we have committed to involving Gibraltar fully in the work that we are doing.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply. Can she explain why Gibraltar did not merit a mention in the Prime Minister’s letter of last week, despite the EU Select Committee of this House reporting on the complexity of the matter? Will she also distance herself from the idea that we might go to war with our NATO ally Spain over Gibraltar? Moreover, does she not find it an extreme irony that this was suggested merely days after we triggered Article 50 to leave the EU, which in 2012 was awarded the Nobel peace prize for the,

“advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe”?

My Lords, on the first part of the noble Baroness’s Question, it is a matter of fact that Gibraltar and other overseas territories, and the Crown dependencies, were mentioned specifically in the White Paper, as they should be. The letter was not the occasion to convey that matter in addition, but I can assure the noble Baroness that we have engaged thoroughly with Gibraltar during all the processes so far. On other matters, I understand that the noble Baroness may be referring to a comment made by one of my noble friends. We still have free speech in this country; may that long continue.

My Lords, what the overwhelming number of people in Gibraltar recognised when they voted to remain was that, when Spain acceded to membership, this country negotiated an extremely good deal for very unique circumstances. The unhelpful remarks about gunboat diplomacy do not address the fundamental issue, which is not that the people of Gibraltar doubt Britain’s commitment to them to maintain their sovereignty, but that they doubt Britain’s ability to negotiate on their behalf the best deal economically. That is what they want to hear from this Government.

My Lords, they have heard that and they very much welcome it, as the Chief Minister has made clear. Since the referendum we have set up a system from the Department for Exiting the European Union and the FCO, whereby the overseas territories, including Gibraltar, can be best consulted. For Gibraltar there is a very special track that that particular negotiation follows, which is a joint negotiating committee set up by the Department for Exiting the European Union, chaired by Robin Walker, a Minister in that department, and attended by my right honourable friend Alan Duncan. We take extremely seriously the importance of negotiating the best outcome for the whole of the UK family. That includes Gibraltar.

Does my noble friend agree that this dreadful deadlock is unlikely to move forward? First, Spain simply has to recognise that no British Government will ever take any steps that do not have the support of the people of Gibraltar. Secondly, the people of Gibraltar have to recognise that so long as Spain retains its territorial claim, it will from time to time seek to make life extremely uncomfortable for Gibraltar. Unless and until both sides wish to move forward, this deadlock will remain.

My noble friend has a long history of professionalism in this as a previous Minister. He is absolutely right.

My Lords, the reply to the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, was entirely unsatisfactory. Does the Minister not realise that if Brexit goes ahead there will be not just one land border with the European Union, in Northern Ireland, but two, because Gibraltar will also have a land border with the European Union? Why was that not included in the six-page letter outlining our priorities? Surely, if we have an ex-leader of the Conservative Party pontificating on it, it must be a priority. Why was it not included in the letter?

My Lords, it is because we take it so seriously that we did not mention simply one aspect in that letter, which, as the noble Lord will be aware—I am sure he has read it in detail—set out general principles, all of which apply to Gibraltar. We are taking our negotiations very seriously and taking every step along the way the opportunity to consult and reflect with Gibraltar on how the discussions will go ahead. Border issues are of course key to our negotiations.

My Lords, does the Minister not feel that the last people to give advice on this matter should be the people who caused the problem: those who incited the electorate of this country to leave the European Union, without which Gibraltar’s situation would be perfectly and totally secure? Could they perhaps encourage their supporters to give them some ideas on how to persuade Spain, which is in a strong position now, unfortunately, to reach an agreed position with us that will preserve the situation of Gibraltar and its prosperity?

My Lords, Gibraltar’s position is as secure today—and will be in two years’ time, or whenever the negotiations are concluded thereafter—as it was on 23 June.

My Lords, is it not obvious that the reason for the sovereignty and status of Gibraltar not being included in the letter is that it has nothing whatever to do with the European Union, and that to include it in the letter would have implied that it had? Will my noble friend, on a scale of one to 10, rate the response on Gibraltar from the European Union for friendliness and constructive engagement?

My noble friend always tempts interesting answers. We have no doubt about the position of the sovereignty of Gibraltar, which is what it was before the referendum took place and so it shall continue to be.

I am relieved to hear that we are not sending a gunboat, but we are sending Mr David Davis, who of course was a member of a territorial unit of the SAS—perhaps that will have some impact on the Government of Spain. This matter was raised in the debate held in your Lordships’ House on 20 October last year, as was the other issue of fishing, on which the Government of Spain no doubt have rather clear views when it comes to access. What assessment have the Government made of the likelihood of that being raised in the comprehensive negotiation which is necessary before we leave the European Union?

My Lords, I am pleased to say that my right honourable friend David Davis is in Madrid today, and he has made it clear to Spain that our position is entirely in line with the answer that I have given to the noble Baroness, Lady Northover. The noble Lord, as always, raises significant questions and is right that we have to be aware that, in any negotiation, other members of the European Union may raise issues which are of specific importance to them. That is what negotiations are about.

While I accept the noble Baroness’s sincerity in saying that there is no change in Gibraltar’s position, surely the fact that we are leaving the European Union disadvantages Gibraltar an awful lot. When Spain has interfered improperly with the border in the past, we have had the strong support of the European Commission because this was in breach of the freedom of movement rules of the treaty. Does the noble Baroness accept that, now that we can no longer rely on those rules, Gibraltar’s position is bound to be considerably worse?

No, my Lords, because we intend to ensure that the rights of Gibraltar are maintained throughout the negotiations. The border is an important issue; it will continue to be so, and it is a matter that we will resolve. Of course, at this stage, I am not able to provide the exact details of what agreements will be reached. After all, the leaked document to which noble Lords referred is a draft document; it is not even a final document produced by the Commission.