I am grateful for your leave to make a statement today on our continuing negotiations for a treaty between the United Kingdom and the European Union on Gibraltar's future relationship with the EU.
As Honourable members and the general public is aware, we have been embarked on these negotiations since October of last year.
We were unable to commence sooner as the European Union mandate for the negotiations was not finalised until early in that month.
The EU is a union of laws and as a result, its negotiators are unable to negotiate other than to a mandate agreed by its institutions. This is as provided for in EU law.
THE NEGOTIATION TO DATE
The process of negotiations has involved 8 negotiating rounds to date.
Round 1 Brussels 11 and 12 October 2021
Round 2 London 10, 11 and 12 November 2021
Round 3 Brussels 2 and 3 December 2021
Round 4 London 14 and 15 December 2021
Round 5 Brussels 1 and 2 February 2022
Round 6 London 1 and 2 March 2022
Round 7 Brussels 30 and 31 March 2022
Round 8 London 10 and 11 May 2022
I anticipate that we will likely need two more rounds of formal negotiation at least.
The first is now likely in early June if the parties agree relevant dates.
I think it is important to set this out as the record needs to reflect these matters. Although of course the rounds are already public, we haven’t had a meeting since the rounds commenced in September and so it’s important I think that Hansard should reflect those dates.
It is also important to reflect on the fact that Rounds 2, 3, 4 and 5 were held whilst the so-called Omicron variant of the COVID-19 pandemic was rampant around the United Kingdom and European Union.
That made travel harder and uncomfortable and I want to specifically thank all members of the UK and EU negotiating teams for travelling at that time. The nascent normality that we seem to be going through at the moment, I think has made us all be blessed with forgetfulness as to how difficult it has been during some periods of the pandemic and it was no least difficult during the last throes of the pandemic when Omicron came and travel once again became very restricted.
These eight rounds to date have already covered all areas which are the subject of the negotiation, I’m pleased to say.
I must in fact tell the House that the complexity of this negotiation is, frankly, unimaginable.
The EU treaties, as all EU lawyers well know, are all very detailed and complex.
We are, in effect, touching every single aspect of the basic building blocks of the European Union and considering whether and if so how each of those should apply to Gibraltar going forward.
The House should nonetheless be aware, as I have already said publicly before, that helping us through this process the United Kingdom has deployed huge resources to assist Gibraltar in this negotiation.
Literally hundreds of individual officers of the UK civil service have been deployed to assist Gibraltar in areas of specialist competence.
From the Home Office who deal with issues related to mobility, to matters relating to the expertise of officers of Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, where Gibraltar has not had experience of being in the free movement of goods zone of the EU in the past and the issues that arise in relation to direct and indirect taxation of goods, and we have been able to tap in to the expertise of HMRC.
Led by the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office, we have seen remarkable resources deployed from across Whitehall, deployed just to assist us in every aspect of the negotiation. In particular in the preparation of each round of the negotiation and that is something that we must be grateful and understand that those resources have been made available to us.
Also, on the EU side we have seen similarly large teams involved, with subject matter experts from each relevant Directorate involved in the rounds of negotiations.
We could not have advanced matters as much as we have without the experts in each field making themselves available. There is nothing easier and yet more dangerous than people who think they know about a subject engaging in a negotiation about it and therefore it is fundamental that we have the subject matter experts on each side so that we get this right if we are able to make an agreement.
The Gibraltar team of officials could also not have been more ably led than it has been by the Attorney General and Chief Legal Advisor to the Government, Michael Llamas QC.
No one in Gibraltar has the remotest hint of his depth of understanding of EU law and the relevant EU structures.
We could not have achieved what we are achieving in this negotiation without his involvement in leading the technical teams in the discussions.
I should also set out my condolences to Mr Llamas, who has suffered the loss of both his parents in the period of this negotiation and in the last few months.
A hard professional time has been made tougher all round by extenuating personal circumstances.
But he has not faltered for one moment.
He has been extraordinarily well supported by Daniel D’Amato in the Gibraltar Office in Brussels who has really become an indispensable part of our team on this issue.
And the work has involved senior civil servants from Gibraltar being present in the virtual negotiating rooms and demonstrating the depth of their commitment to Gibraltar in their preparations and contributions in the fields in which they are each the subject matter experts in Gibraltar.
All of our subject matter experts in the public sector have been involved.
And the United Kingdom team, lead by UKMIS Ambassador in Brussels, Lindsay Appleby, and Foreign Office lead, Robbie Bulloch, have gone above and beyond each day as we have strategized and worked together to progress matters.
And although in the past – but not in my time - the Convent and Convent Place may not have always batted together, I am very pleased to say that our FOURTH OFFICIAL or the TWELTH MAN in our team has been the quite remarkable Sir David Steel and his Convent team.
He really has been a key mentoring and reflecting influence for me in particular, if not for the whole of my team.
Mr Speaker we could have the best negotiators on our side, but if the EU or Spain had the worst, we would not make any progress.
We are lucky to have a great EU Commission team across the table from us.
Clara Martinez Alberola leads a committed team with whom we are enjoying working, even when we inevitably disagree on the many ways to say or do the same thing.
That is what a negotiation in good faith is about, after all.
I want to thank the EU negotiators for having had the patience to understand from us the things that make Gibraltar different to most places.
We are still working through the list as you can imagine!
I hope they are enjoying this process also and learning as much as we are.
And the same is true of our interaction with our Spanish opposite numbers, with whom as I have told the House before we have built a strong rapport from which to hopefully resolve these historic issues in a way that everyone wins on the non-sovereignty aspects and no one loses on the sovereignty aspects.
That is the extraordinarily difficult balance that we are seeking to strike.
I therefore reiterate my thanks to the respective negotiating teams involved.
In terms of progress of the talks, I am able to advise the House today that considerable positive engagement in the past four weeks has led us to be very pleased with where we are today.
Of course, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed and at the moment we are not able to say we have agreed any text.
We are simply refining principles in great detail.
But we have done so and this morning I have updated the Cabinet on the progress we have made last week which has been satisfactory to all of us at this stage.
I have also subsequently briefed the Leader of the Opposition and the Honourable Ms Hassan Nahon.
On many areas, there has already been agreement around basic principles for full agreement to follow.
The areas that remained most open in principle relate to aspects of mobility of persons and aspects of mobility of goods.
The main issue has centred around mobility of persons.
The key has been resolving how we would be able to give effect to the practical arrangements necessary that will arise from the delicate balance reached in the New Year’s Eve Agreement.
Spain is the neighboring member state and is today already responsible for Schengen checks as individuals seek to enter Schengen via Gibraltar at the Gibraltar-Spain frontier at La Linea.
We, therefore, agreed in the New Year’s Eve Agreement, which we debated already in this House, that Spain will have the responsibility for the Schengen checks as people enter Schengen via the entry points in Gibraltar.
At least for the first four years, she will carry out those checks with the assistance of Frontex.
The question, however, is how to do that in a way that is safe, secure and agreeable to Gibraltar and the UK and Spain and the EU from day one.
Of course, we have the many years of disputes and restrictions etc to deal with as we assess each other’s positions.
The location and manner of the carrying out of the Schengen checks has been a key issue throughout the negotiation.
That means working to agree in detail where relevant people will be, what they will do and who they will do it to.
As such, we have also had to determine what each relevant agency will do in carrying out such checks.
The key, however, is that there will no such checks at the frontier between us and Spain.
That is to say that where the checks are currently carried out, there will be no checks.
That will bring an end, forever, at least during the period of application of the Treaty such as it may be, of frontier queues and checks as we know them today.
Of course, we also want these issues not to create unnecessary additional burdens for passengers arriving at Gibraltar Airport and Port.
So we are working very hard indeed to get this right.
Again, the complexity of the negotiation cannot be overstated.
But neither should the potential fruits and benefits of it for this community be underestimated.
By seeking mobility of goods and persons we are seeking, in effect, to carve a niche for ourselves in the infrastructure of the EU which cannot in any way threaten the integrity of the single market or the security of the Schengen area.
That much is obvious.
But those personal mobility and goods mobility issues are not everything.
We continue to seek to finalise agreement in other areas.
What I would say though is that some of the subsidiary points that are not the totemic ones will also have some important underlying aspects for us which will need to be resolved in a way that we are satisfied, after scrutiny, do not cause us any unintended issues.
Those are coming into scope now.
But the detail behind the current positions is not one we can go into.
I say that knowing, as I do, that people want the detail because the devil is in the detail.
In the detail of the principles agreed – which are essentially those seen in the New Year’s Eve Agreement.
And in the detail of the texts to be finalised in the Treaty and the ancillary documents that we will agree around a treaty.
I appreciate the public’s patience as we seek to ensure we strike the right balance.
The details will all be made public when everything has been agreed in principle.
Nothing will be finally and irrevocably agreed in secret.
But what we cannot do is negotiate in public.
If we do that, although we may satisfy a lot of curiosity, we will also fail to find final agreement in any area.
So I am sorry to say that we cannot say more.
We cannot go into more details because we want to give the opportunity to finalise this deal the best chance possible.
This is not because our instinct is not to be transparent, but because our obligation is to a higher purpose than ourselves and even our own political reputations and fortunes.
We have to do the right thing for the Gibraltarians and all residents of Gibraltar.
We have to do so even if in doing so we have to take arrows and bullets from our own side for our alleged lack of transparency.
In that respect, I would say this.
In our view, a lack of transparency arises when a government can say something without a negative repercussion to the nation, but chooses not to do so, even if that is as a result of seeking to avoid embarrassment for itself.
We are not in the realms of such a lack of transparency.
We are respecting the confidentiality of a process which depends on discretion in order to be able to succeed as we consider would be in the best interests of Gibraltar and its people and residents.
I think most people understand that this is a process where all relevant teams have been treading softly.
We are walking on a tissue of diplomacy that still remains untorn.
If we get to the end without tearing it, it will allow us the twin objectives of making a success of our future relationship with the EU whilst not turning one atom away from the steadfast reality of that we are and want to remain exclusively British in every regard.
And I want to emphasise that in fact no one is asking us to explicitly or implicitly give up the latter, by the way.
STATE OF PLAY
So, Mr Speaker, many of our citizens and our businesses will ask:
What is the current state of play?
The straight answer to that is that we are within touching distance of a historic treaty.
A treaty between the UK and the EU.
A treaty that, if we can get there, will create renewed optimism in the European idea itself.
It will create opportunity for our further economic development and the further economic development of the region around us, and perhaps even beyond, reaching across the strait.
Because I want to be clear that the shared prosperity we talk about is about business development, not about Gibraltar paying for the creation or maintenance of Spanish infrastructure.
The new arrangements, if they can be agreed, will put cross border cooperation on a more definite and secure footing.
In doing so, it will protecting our post ‘86 way of life, while at the same time safeguarding ALL of our fundamental political interests and not asking any other party to compromise theirs, as already provided for in the New Year’s Eve Agreement.
PACE OF PROGRESS
We are moving at a good pace now.
We can see the contours of the final agreement between the UK and the EU that will then be turned into a treaty text.
The positions we are landing on are becoming clear and concrete proposals on the table.
We are reaching the point of being able to point to legally safe and secure solutions on the different parts of each of the most important points.
That will enable the UK and the EU to consider draft texts for the agreement in those areas.
I believe we are now close to being able to start consolidated treaty drafting in coming weeks.
I entirely agree with Spanish foreign Minister Albares in his assessment that we can be “confident that this will move forward as quickly as possible."
DEBATE BEFORE RATIFICATION
What I can also assure the House and the Community as a whole is that we are not, for one moment, going to spring an agreement on anyone.
Neither will we pretend to declare an agreement can be ratified by the United Kingdom on behalf of Gibraltar without consultation.
We have already said that we will not give Gibraltar's consent to the United Kingdom's ratification of the Treaty without the agreement of the Cabinet and the agreement of this House after a debate on a substantive motion. That is to say an amendable motion, not a vague motion of note.
So this House will debate the terms and substance of the agreement if the Cabinet approves a deal.
Mr Speaker, I know that the uncertainties of the past six years have unsettled many.
Some have heard rogue voices from outside Gibraltar, in different places, challenge the nature of our British sovereignty.
Let me once again be exceedingly clear.
The future of Gibraltar is exclusively British.
Nothing in the negotiations has called this into question or challenged any of the basic tenents of British Sovereignty over Gibraltar.
And we are not being asked to do anything which might cross that objective of ours.
As former Spanish Secretary of State for Europe, Mario Aguiriano said, Spanish negotiators know that if they raise the issue of the sovereignty of Gibraltar, the UK and Gibraltar will simply leave the negotiating room.
We have not closed our files and left the table because no such thing has been raised or asked of us.
Of course we are looking always to ensure that there is no detail that involves any aspect of jurisdiction or control that will erode sovereignty being brought into play.
As I have said in every statement I have made on this matter in this House, nothing will ever cleave Gibraltar from the United Kingdom.
Nothing will ever rip us from Britain.
No one is even trying, although I recognize that it is sometimes easier for some to try to battle the monsters of the past to avoid fighting the real challenges of the present.
We will not fall into that trap.
Our people will not fall into that trap.
Because cheap jingoism will not resolve the Brexit conundrum that Britain has served up for us and which we are negotiating with Britain and not against Britain, as some might have done.
The EU is built on compromise - and we will need to compromise in some areas, of course.
Some things will change and will be done differently as we will have freedoms we did not have before, as in movement of goods and people.
But for us the compromises on the table cannot concern compromises on British sovereignty, jurisdiction or control.
But they will include practical measures to secure fluidity that will make us all safer and more secure if we become a de facto part of the Schengen space.
In fact, our people know that Gibraltar is today closer to the UK than it has ever been before.
Socially, politically and economically.
The latter is important as we have secured access to the UK market in services that is the envy of many.
We will never put that at risk.
And that has been perhaps the greatest political achievement of the Government I have led in the international sphere.
It has been the repair, the consolidation and strengthening of our relationship with the United Kingdom, in which we have found an understanding and willing partner.
And it is in that work with Britain that the Government as a whole can already see the contours of that deal which we think is likely to become a treaty text which is safe and secure for Gibraltar and within what we would all consider to be acceptable.
But we will of course have to see the final draft treaty text before deciding.
Mr Speaker, I also want to say something about the issue of Northern Ireland, as I know that it is something which is very live in the news media.
It is not for me to comment on the substance of matters affecting Northern Ireland and I will not do so.
But it is clear that many external issues have buffeted our negotiations in the past six years since the result of the Brexit referendum.
The most high profile issue, of course, now is how matters relating to Northern Ireland and the disputes over the application of its protocol may affect our negotiation.
I want to be clear and set out that both our negotiations are entirely different.
There are common parties in the UK and the EU.
But there are also underlying disparate parties in Spain and Gibraltar.
In one – that is to say, in relation to Northern Ireland - the parties are arguing over what they have already agreed and how to implement it or not.
In another – that is to say, in relation to our negotiation - we are negotiating our agreement, conscious of the need to give it sufficient clarity to avoid issues going forward.
That view has been echoed by the United Kingdom which has consistently made the point that the issues arising in respect of Northern Ireland and those which arise in relation to Gibraltar are entirely different.
Importantly, Mr Speaker, it is also the position of the Kingdom of Spain, at whose suit the European Commission has launched this negotiation.
On Friday, the Spanish Foreign Minister, Jose Manuel ALBARES made clear that Gibraltar and Northern Ireland presented the EU with “two separate negotiations”.
"They have nothing in common other than the fact that on the other side of the table is the same party,” he said.
Perhaps even more importantly, the Foreign Secretary of the Republic of Ireland, Mr Simon Coveney, in the same press conference alongside Sr Albares, was also forthright and clear in separating the issue of the disputes arising in respect of Northern Ireland and the very positive, ongoing talks on Gibraltar.
Mr Coveney specifically said they were "completely separate negotiations".
He insisted, as we do, as the UK do and as Spain does, that they should be negotiations that are kept that way, as has been done at every stage throughout the Brexit process.
The European Commission has previously made similar statements through different spokespersons.
Before I sit down Mr Speaker I should remind the House of an underlying reality that we cannot minimize.
On the morning of the 24th June 2016 our political world changed forever.
We must understand that as we reach the final throes of this process.
We must understand that Spain remains a member state of the EU and we are not.
We must understand that things we had the right to do in Europe before we are now NOT entitled to.
My obligation from then has been to steer a course to continued prosperity and to seek a path to future prosperity in an exclusively British Gibraltar.
We have a plan for being outside the EU now and a plan for being outside the EU in four years’ time if needs be.
Our better plan is the plan that sees us enter into arrangements with the EU so long as the circumstances for those arrangements are right and remain right.
We are leaving no stone unturned to negotiate a safe, secure and positive agreement for Gibraltar’s future relationship with the EU.
We will continue to work night and day, in good faith, to achieve that.