Gibraltar is joining the Schengen free-travel area and will accept European border guards in its ports.
The agreement, reached shortly before New Year’s between the governments of Britain and Spain, avoids the need for a hard border and pulls the Rock closer into the European Union than it was before.
It is a victory for Spanish nationalists, who have long dreamed of regaining a foothold in Gibraltar after three centuries of British rule.
Accomplished, ironically, by a left-wing government.
The EU’s remaining 27 member states agreed in 2017 that no agreements between the EU and the UK would apply to Gibraltar without a bilateral agreement between London and Madrid.
I argued at the time that Brexit would prove an opportunity to “take back control” for Spain. As soon as Britain voted to leave the EU, its friends on the continent had no incentive to push back against Spanish irredentism anymore.
Gibraltar itself, which voted almost unanimously to remain in the EU in the 2016 referendum, argued for joining Schengen in addition to remaining in the European single market for goods. Some 15,000 residents of La Línea de la Concepción on the Spanish side of the border — including 6,000 Britons and other Europeans — commuted into Gibraltar every day before the coronavirus pandemic. With only one border crossing, passport controls would have suffocated the local economy, which is dependent on finance, online gambling and trade.
Spain’s previous, conservative government tried to force Gibraltar out of the single market. When the Socialists took over, and changed the Spanish position, the right accused them of throwing away a “golden opportunity” to negotiate joint Anglo-Spanish sovereignty over the peninsula.
Conservatives never specified what “joint sovereignty” would look like, but it seems to me the Socialists have achieved it in all but name.
EU nationals can continue to travel freely into Gibraltar from Spain. British travelers will be required to show passports and, if they plan to stay in the EU longer than ninety days, a visa.
Gibraltar’s air- and seaport will become external EU borders, manned for the next four years by Frontex guards who answer to Spain.
It’s undecided if they will remain beyond that period, if Gibraltarian agents will take over, or the Spaniards. Certainly Spain will be in a strong position to argue by then that it should have its own people on the ground, making a mockery of British prime minister Boris Johnson’s promise that “no sliver of Rock” would be traded away.