Britain Walks Back Commitment to Gibraltar

It agreed to put Gibraltar in the Schengen Area to avoid the need for border controls.

Gibraltar at dusk (Shutterstock/Philip Lange)

Did the British not read the fine print when they signed their Brexit deals?

Not only do they regret agreeing to a lay a customs border down the Irish Sea to avoid the need for passport checks and inspections of goods on the Ireland-Northern Ireland border; they also have second thoughts about their agreement with Spain for Gibraltar.

Taking back control

When Britain triggered its exit from the European Union in 2017, the remaining member states agreed to give Spain a veto over the future status of Gibraltar. I called it an opportunity to “take back control” — for Spain.

Gibraltar has been British since 1713. Gibraltarians have twice, and overwhelmingly, voted to remain British: in 1967 and 2002. But Spaniards still covet the peninsula.

A deal reached just before New Year’s gives Spain more control than it has had in three centuries. Non-EU citizens, including Britons, would need to apply for Spanish visas if they wanted to stay in Gibraltar for more than ninety days. Gibraltar’s air- and seaport would become external EU frontiers, manned for the next four years by Frontex guards under Spanish command.


Those border controls have become a source of contention.

In its draft proposal to European leaders for finalizing the Gibraltar deal, the European Commission doesn’t mention Frontex at all. It only acknowledges Spanish border guards, and moreover requires UK officials to cooperate with their Spanish counterparts if and when asked.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has accused the commission of trying to “undermine the UK’s sovereignty.”

But it was his boss who gave that sovereignty away.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised “no sliver of Rock” would be given up, and then agreed to put Gibraltar in the European customs union.

Unlike Northern Ireland, which would remain in the EU customs union in all but name to avoid the need for a hard border in Ulster, Gibraltar was never in the customs union.

Like Northern Ireland, Gibraltar wasn’t in the passport-free Schengen Area either. Now it would become an entry port to Schengen.

There is no alternative

It’s the best deal for both sides.

Some 15,000 residents of La Línea de la Concepción on the Spanish side of the border — including about 6,000 Britons and other Europeans who can’t afford to live in Gibraltar proper — commute into the territory every day.

For Gibraltar, which has a population of 34,000, those workers are essential. With only one tiny border crossing, passport controls would stifle the local economy.

Gibraltar does most of its trade with the EU. With no capital gains tax, its economy has become dependent on banking and other financial services. It unilaterally adopts many European financial regulations to avoid being blacklisted as a tax haven.

It’s not at all clear Gibraltarians mind being pulled closer into Europe. 96 percent of them voted to remain in the EU in the 2016 referendum.

What is clear is that pragmatic cooperation threatens to fall victim to the sovereignty obsessions of English Brexiteers, who, unlike the people of Gibraltar, have no direct stake in the outcome.