The ghost of a hard Brexit is haunting Gibraltar once again. Instead of being eliminated, the border between the British Overseas Territory and Spain, known locally as La Verja (literally, the fence), could become a daily nightmare for the nearly 10,000 Spaniards who cross it every day for work.
If ongoing post-Brexit negotiations between the United Kingdom and the European Union fail to bear fruit, the European Commission could demand that Spain start carrying out the kind of checks on passengers and goods at La Verja that are performed at the EU’s external borders.
Right now the biggest danger is that the Gibraltar negotiation could be affected by stalled talks on the Northern Ireland protocol, after the British government signaled that it wants to replace rules it agreed to in 2019 covering trade between Northern Ireland (in the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (in the EU).
Spain’s Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares said on Sunday that the differences over the protocol should not condition the Gibraltar deal. “They are two different issues that have absolutely nothing to do with each other; what’s more, they are two different negotiations,” he said.
But sources consulted by this newspaper said that it will be very difficult to keep both negotiations separate, as they are taking place simultaneously and both depend on European Commission Vice President Maros Šefčovič.
They are two different issues that have absolutely nothing to do with each other; what’s more, they are two different negotiations
Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares
Gibraltar, which is located at the southern tip of the Iberian peninsula, overwhelmingly voted to remain in the EU at the 2016 Brexit referendum. The territory, which has been the source of years-long disputes with Madrid, was left out of the main Brexit deal between the EU and the United Kingdom, meaning that a separate agreement is required.
A preliminary framework deal was agreed on December 31 by Spain and the UK for the future relationship between the EU and Gibraltar. Under this deal, Gibraltar would join the Schengen area, a European free-travel zone that is made up of 26 countries, despite not being formally part of the EU itself. But now that best-case scenario is hanging in the balance once again.
Maintaining smooth circulation between Gibraltar and the neighboring, economically depressed Spanish area of Campo de Gibraltar, home to many cross-border workers, has been a priority for both sides since the UK voted to leave the EU. For Gibraltar, it is crucial to avoid a similar kind of isolation as when the late dictator Francisco Franco closed the border in June 1969 and kept it shut for the next 16 years.
Last week, European and British delegations held the first round on the future status of Gibraltar with a view to reaching a deal before the end of the year. In theory, all they need to do is to put down in a formal treaty the content of the preliminary agreement reached on December 31 that gives Gibraltar all the advantages of Schengen membership, with Spain acting as the guarantor. There is a sticking point, however: the role of Spanish police and EU Frontex customs officers at the port and airport of Gibraltar.
But for now the biggest problem is the Northern Ireland protocol, which could have a knock-on effect on the Gibraltar talks. The problem is that time is running out, and the dispute over checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from England, Scotland or Wales could end up resurrecting the old border between Gibraltar and La Línea de la Concepción, the way it was before Spain joined the EU in 1986.
For now, the Gibraltar negotiating teams are planning to hold two rounds of talks in November and hope to close a deal on the week of December 13. But the concern is palpable. “If the dispute over Ireland is not resolved by the end of the year, or if London acts on its threat to unilaterally suspend the protocol, it will be very hard to conclude the negotiation on Gibraltar, no matter how much progress is made,” said a European source.
No man’s land
Ever since the Brexit transition period ended on December 31, Gibraltar has effectively been in no man’s land, outside the EU and without coverage from the trade and cooperation treaty regulating the relationship between the UK and the EU. From a legal standpoint, La Verja has already become an external border of the EU, although in practice it remains in the same situation as when it was a part of the union.
Sources consulted by this newspaper said that the EU Commission is looking the other way while talks are underway to, presumably, eliminate La Verja altogether. But this situation cannot last indefinitely, and sooner or later the Commission will have to demand implementation of Schengen controls, including visas and passports.
Additionally, contingency agreements on healthcare for cross-border workers, the validity of UK drivers’ licenses in Spain and other practical matters will expire on October 31. Minister Albares is planning to meet with mayors of towns located in Campo de Gibraltar to issue a message of calm, but without losing sight of the fact that preparations need to be made for the possibility of a hard border scenario in Gibraltar.
EU commission unveils proposal to digitalise justice systems
The European Commission unveiled on Wednesday a proposal to digitalise EU cross-border justice systems, aiming at making them more accessible and effective. Under the new draft law, the EU executive wants to tackle inefficiencies affecting cross-border judicial cooperation and barriers to access to justice in cross-border cases. Shifting paper-based communications to electronic formats would save up to €25m per year across the EU in postage and paper costs.
Covid limits migration despite more people displaced by war and disasters | Global development
The coronavirus pandemic had a radical effect on migration, limiting movement despite increasing levels of internal displacement from conflict and climate disasters, the UN’s International Organization for Migration said in a report on Wednesday.
Though the number of people who migrated internationally increased to 281 million in 2020 – 9 million more than before Covid-19 – the number was 2 million lower than expected without a pandemic, according to the report.
“We are witnessing a paradox not seen before in human history,” said IOM director general, António Vitorino. “While billions of people have been effectively grounded by Covid-19, tens of millions of others have been displaced within their own countries.”
Internal displacement caused by violence, conflict and disasters increased to 40.5 million from 31.5 million. Globally, the IOM said governments implemented a total of 108,000 restrictions on international travel, alongside internal restrictions on movement, disrupting migration during the pandemic.
Prior to the report’s release, Vitorino told IOM member states on Monday that international cooperation was needed to ensure people were not stripped of the option of migrating when they needed to.
He also pointed out that people from countries with low levels of vaccination could be excluded from emigrating. “We must acknowledge the deep impacts the Covid-19 pandemic has had for people on the move: people stranded in transit, families separated across borders, migrants left unemployed but unable to afford the return home,” said Vitorino.
“The resulting complex patchwork of measures, frequently changing in scope and application, has placed a chilling effect on cross-border mobility, particularly for those unvaccinated.”
The report said conditions were particularly harsh for people from developing countries working in the Middle East and south-east Asia, with the pandemic affecting their incomes and housing, while they were also often excluded from access to healthcare and welfare.
However, the feared 20% drop in remittances – which can be a key lifeline to poor families during crises – that was predicted by the World Bank in April 2020 did not materialise and had been much lower, at 2.4%. This might be partly related to people being forced to send money to their families through formal routes, the report suggested, because options such as carrying cash were blocked off, as well as many working in jobs on the frontline of the pandemic that continued despite lockdowns.
Poland curtails media access to Belarus border
Poland’s president on Tuesday (30 November) signed into law legislation that will limit the access of aid charities and journalists to its border with Belarus as the country grapples with a simmering migrant crisis, Reuters reports. The law is a blow to the opposition parties that advocated for unlimited media access, an amendment approved by the upper house of parliament on Friday but rejected by the lower house.
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