Negotiators from the UK and Spain have reached a draft agreement on the post-Brexit future of Gibraltar.
“Today is a day for hope,” Spain’s foreign minister, Arancha González Laya, said on Thursday. “In the long history of our relations with the UK, related to Gibraltar, today we’re facing an inflexion point.”
As part of the deal, the British Overseas Territory located on the southern tip of the Iberian peninsula would be able to join European Union programmes and policies such as Schengen, González Laya told reporters.
With just hours left before Brexit was set to come into force, negotiations over the future of the territory had come down to the wire. “The final countdown” is how Fabian Picardo, Gibraltar’s chief minister, had started off the day on Twitter.
The Brexit deal announced on Christmas Eve between the UK and EU did not cover Gibraltar. Instead the fate of the territory was the topic of months of parallel negotiations that focused on preserving free movement across the shared border with Spain while steering clear of the centuries-old sovereignty dispute between London and Madrid.
“It was six months of intense work,” said González Laya. “There were difficult moments, there were moments where we were stalled.”
Picardo had long advocated for Gibraltar to join the Schengen area of abolished border controls – a move that would see the British overseas territory establish closer ties to the EU just as Britain left the bloc.
On Thursday, González Laya said the deal opened the door to Gibraltar joining Schengen. “The application of these European programmes and policies is being carried out with the intermediation and support of Spain, with Spain assuming responsibility.”
In recent days, Spain had increased pressure on the negotiations, with the foreign minister using the example of the stalled lorries that recently stretched for miles in southern England to warn of the chaos that could play out if Gibraltar was left to the whims of Brexit.
“If there is no deal, Gibraltar will become the external border of the EU. That means more checks, longer waiting times and more costs,” González Laya told reporters earlier this week.
She warned that Gibraltar – where 96% of voters in the Brexit referendum voted to remain in the EU – could end up grappling with some of the toughest consequences of Brexit. “It would become the only territory that would see a hard Brexit.”
Around 15,000 people live in Spain and regularly cross into Gibraltar for work, making up around half of the territory’s workforce. Spain said this week that, even without a deal, all cross-border workers registered with Gibraltar by the end of the year would be exempt from border controls.
The concession, however, did little to address the roughly 10 million tourists who visit Gibraltar each year, pouring millions of euros into the territory and the nearby Spanish towns that make up the frontier area known as the Campo de Gibraltar.
“A hard border would have catastrophic consequences for the Campo de Gibraltar,” Juan Franco, the mayor of the border town La Línea de la Concepcion, told the broadcaster RNE on Wednesday. “Our economy depends entirely on the Rock.”
Despite ceding Gibraltar to Britain in 1713, Spain has long sought to reclaim the territory.