Gibraltar: UK-EU Negotiations - Commons Urgent Question

– in the House of Lords at 7:38 pm on 12 March 2024.

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The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Monday 11 March.

“The Minister for Europe, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my honourable 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 be achieved only 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, in our efforts both 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”.

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 7:50, 12 March 2024

My Lords, as Stephen Doughty made clear yesterday, the sovereignty and self-determination of Gibraltar are not up for debate. It is critical that the Government now work hard to get a deal across the line for business, people and communities on both sides of the border. On the Europe Minister’s visit to Gibraltar yesterday, David Rutley said the purpose was

“to see what support they might need in any scenario that might arise, but we are working in good faith towards a deal”.—[Official Report, Commons, 11/3/24; col. 38.]

Does the Minister accept that it would be helpful if the Europe Minister made a Statement that could be repeated in this House so that we could get the details of that scenario planning?

What assessment has the Minister made of the ongoing impact of uncertainty on the economy of the Rock? I hope the Europe Minister was able to speak not only to the Chief Minister, other Ministers within his Government and Gibraltar parliamentarians but to businesses, particularly the trade unions. I must declare an interest: I was a trade union officer for 20 years representing workers in Gibraltar, so I know of their deep concern about the future.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, I suppose I should declare an interest: Gibraltar in Arabic is actually Gibr al-Tariq, so I suppose I have a personal claim over the territory under discussion.

I agree with the noble Lord and I thank His Majesty’s Official Opposition, because it is essential at this time of negotiation that we speak with a single voice. The noble Lord rightly points out that negotiations have continued on the framework that was decided on in 2020. There have been about 17 rounds of negotiations and good progress is being made, but I am sure he will agree with me and my colleague the Minister for Europe that we must ensure that planning and support are given for all negotiations. Of course, we want progress to be made, and it is, but it is right to have contingency planning. In that regard, the Europe Minister met the Chief Minister, while the Attorney-General of Gibraltar is also very much a part of the negotiating team.

I hear what the noble Lord says about a possible update. Negotiations continue, and the Foreign Secretary himself is engaged on that, but I will certainly discuss with the Minister for Europe how we can further update the other place and your Lordships’ House.

Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Liberal Democrat

My Lords, the old conflicts over Gibraltar were settled when both Spain and the UK were in the EU, and of course 96% of Gibraltarians voted to stay in the union, but now the EU must take into account what its member state Spain wishes. Fortunately, it seems to be clearly in everyone’s interest to conclude a treaty that helps to secure the future prosperity of Gibraltar and the region around. Any solution must be in the interests of the people of Gibraltar as determined by them and not by other factors, but can the Minister confirm that the UK will fully support Gibraltar should it prove impossible to secure a deal?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I assure the noble Baroness and your Lordships’ House that the United Kingdom’s support for Gibraltar is steadfast, and we will not agree anything that compromises Gibraltar’s sovereignty. I also agree with the noble Baroness about the importance of ensuring that an agreement is reached in the interests of all. Let us not forget workers, which the noble Lord, Lord Collins, mentioned, with whom we are engaging directly. About 15,000 workers cross from Spain into Gibraltar, which is about 50% of the workforce. That demonstrates the importance of getting a deal that works for all.

Photo of Baroness Butler-Sloss Baroness Butler-Sloss Chair, Ecclesiastical Committee (Joint Committee), Chair, Ecclesiastical Committee (Joint Committee)

My Lords, I am a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Gibraltar, so I visit it regularly. I have been to see the airport, particularly the side that has been built for Spain. What is expected for someone like me arriving by air at Gibraltar Airport and going through both Spanish and British immigration? I am wondering how that is going to work.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I am sure that when they see the noble and learned Baroness, there will be a nod through at both ends.

There will be two processes; there will be checks by both Gibraltar and Spain. We are negotiating a mobility agreement that will allow for that free passage. At the moment, as the noble and learned Baroness will know, a double check is done for anyone visiting Gibraltar and Spain. Negotiations are in a good place, and once they reach a more defined status, we will update the House. With regard to the Schengen agreement, we are not going to be asking, nor will Gibraltar be joining, but there will be a mobility agreement in that respect.

Photo of Lord Bellingham Lord Bellingham Conservative

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the overwhelming conclusions of these negotiations has been the critical need to listen to the people of Gibraltar and respect their views? Will the Minister agree to take away and look again at the idea of the Gibraltarians having their own MP in Westminster? After all, they had an MEP—the MEP for the south-west region also represented Gibraltar—and it goes without saying that if it were a French territory, and thank goodness it is not, it would have a député in the Assemblée Nationale. Will the Minister take this idea away? It would be a significant improvement in the extent to which their views were heard in Westminster.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My noble friend puts forward a practical suggestion that I will certainly take back. However, he will be aware that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office engages regularly with Gibraltar not just on a bilateral basis but as one of our British Overseas Territories through the Joint Ministerial Council. That allows us to understand both collective and specific issues. I will certainly update my noble friend in that regard. I agree with him that it is important that Gibraltar, as I have stated—for both country reasons and a personal reason—stays part and parcel of what we define as global Britain.

Photo of Lord Hannay of Chiswick Lord Hannay of Chiswick Crossbench

My Lords, I should declare an interest because I was personally and deeply involved in the negotiations that led to the ending of the closure of the border between Gibraltar and Spain in the early 1980s. I assure noble Lords, as a frequent visitor at the time, that that closed border did not help either Gibraltarians or Spain. We should not think that there is a soft option in no deal; it would be a hard option. Can the Minister confirm that His Majesty’s Government will not flinch one bit from the strong support they have given hitherto to the Chief Minister, who has negotiated with great skill, ingenuity and determination? May that continue, and may it succeed.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

The noble Lord speaks with great insight. I can give him a cast-iron assurance that I agree with every word he has said. We work closely with the Chief Minister and his team. I believe he will also be visiting London this month and meeting various committees in that respect. As I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, the UK is steadfast, and it will not agree anything that compromises Gibraltar’s sovereignty.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

My Lords, one of the many areas that cause conflict between Spain and the UK over the issue of Gibraltar is tobacco smuggling. Gibraltar does not apply sales tax or other levies, while Spain says that smuggling costs it €400 million a year in lost import duties. This and a number of other dubious business practices associated with Gibraltar have an impact both on the EU and on the UK. Are the Government looking at how some of these issues might be addressed to help to progress the negotiations?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

As the noble Baroness will know, there are provisions within the political framework for a level playing field. That will allow for mutual standards on matters covering labour, the environment and taxation, and it will cover all sectors.

Sitting suspended.