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Gibraltar talks rocked by EU Vice-President’s ‘joke’

Talks will continue this week on how to permanently avoid immigration and customs controls between Spain and Gibraltar and so eliminate one of Brexit’s many damaging consequences. But diplomatic efforts by the EU and UK weren’t helped by what the European Commission now describes as a ‘humorous situation”, when Vice-President Margaritis Schinas claimed that being able to refer to Gibraltar as Spanish was just one example of where “things are better after Brexit”, writes Political Editor Nick Powell.

It was all going so well for Margaritis Schinas. The Greek Commissioner for the European Way of Life won laughter and applause at a newspaper briefing in Seville when, in fluent Spanish, he answered a question about Brexit. He was pressed with the one-word question “Gibraltar?” and replied with the single word “Español”.

‘Gibraltar Español’ was a slogan of the Franco regime when it closed Spain’s frontier with Gibraltar in an attempt to get Britain’s to hand back the territory. It’s unusual, to say the least, for the European Commission’s Chief Spokesperson to explain away the use of a fascist slogan as humour. But that’s what happened when a journalist asked about the ‘Spanish Gibraltar’ quip, adding that “the last time I checked, it wasn’t”.

Not everyone got the joke. As the Spokesperson also pointed out, the Commission Vice-President actually responsible for the Gibraltar negotiations, Maroš Šefčovič, had issued a joint statement with the Spanish Foreign Minister, José Manuel Albares that “the negotiations between the EU and the United Kingdom regarding Gibraltar are progressing as planned”.

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“We are entering a sensitive stage of the negotiations”, they continued, “on the EU side, the negotiations are being driven by the European Commission, under the political responsibility of its Executive Vice President, Maroš Šefčovič, who speaks on behalf of the European Commission on this matter”. 

So not Vice President Schinas, whose comments had already been described by Foreign Minister Albares, as “very unfortunate and incomprehensible”. Unfortunate perhaps but all too easily comprehended as the Greek Commissioner spelt out what he meant. He had been encouraged by the laughter and applause for his single word quip to keep going -and to keep digging a hole for his colleagues.

“I can more comfortably say Gibraltar español after Brexit”, he’d continued. “And it’s not just the only area where things are better after Brexit. I was also talking earlier about our proposal to create a European diploma; this would have been unthinkable with the United Kingdom within the European Union. They would never accept any European diploma because it would affect their Anglo-Saxon market”.

Whatever the truth about the UK’s diploma policy, the real problem with the comments about Gibraltar is that they were a statement of the obvious. It’s much easier for the Commission to know which side it’s on when a dispute is no longer between two member states. But sometimes such things are best not said aloud and Mr Albares did not hold back in his criticism of Mr Schinas.

“Commissioner Schinas is not at all involved in the dossier of the withdrawal agreement concerning Gibraltar”, he to RTVE. “It is Commissioner Maroš Šefčovič, with whom I have also had a conversation about it, and we both, both the commissioner who knows and handles that negotiation, and myself, agree that the negotiations are progressing at a good pace”.

“And I have also conveyed to Commissioner Schinas that, besides his statements being unfortunate, I hope that in the future only the commissioner in charge of that negotiation, which is Maroš Šefčovič, will be the one to comment on it”. He said Mr Schinas had apologised. 

“He told me that it was not his intention, that he regretted it, that, well, he did not have all the information and, basically, he apologised for it”, Mr Albares said. “The important thing: we are negotiating, both with the UK, and of course, the Commission with the UK, on the aspects that correspond to the EU, well; we are making progress, and certainly all parties, the Commission, Spain, UK, want that agreement to conclude as soon as possible”.

At Spain’s insistence, Gibraltar was not covered by the Brexit agreement between the UK and the EU and separate negotiations have dragged on, with temporary arrangements keeping people and goods moving freely across the frontier. The main sticking point is the consequences of Gibraltar becoming part of the Schengen Area, another outcome of Brexit that its supporters failed to foresee when they campaigned to leave the EU.

The UK has had to concede that not only will Gibraltar join Schengen under Spanish sponsorship but that in consequence it will hand over the immigration controls at the territory’s airport and seaport that handle arrivals from Britain, Morocco and other non-Schengen countries. The question is hand over to whom.

The UK favours the deployment of the EU’s Frontex border force, which itself is hardly what was meant by the Brexit campaigners’ promise ‘to take back control’. Spain wants its own border officers to take charge, arguing that Frontex normally leaves checking passports to national officials. If a compromise can be found it will be in a form of words more attractive to the UK and to Gibraltar than the current position of the Commission and of Spain that Frontex will merely ‘assist’ at Spain’s request.

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