Theresa May’s concession over Gibraltar does not allow negotiations to be opened between the UK and Spain over which country should have sovereignty over the Rock.
However, the difficulty for the Government is that it could allow such discussions to take place in future. In essence, it says that Gibraltar won’t be covered by the proposed Brexit deal. So the Rock won’t automatically be included in any future free trade agreement between Spain and the UK – and may not be at all.
May’s present retreat follows a previous advance. The Government seems to have pulled a fast one over Spain by doctoring a section of the draft Withdrawal Agreement – Article 184 – to allow the deal to cover exactly such a future trade agreement. This represented a reverse of the EU’s previous position, and a loss of face for Pedro Sanchez.
So Spain’s Prime Minister cut up rough – threatening to veto not only the Withdrawal Agreement, but Brexit itself. Spain is in no better a position to veto the first than the second: the Agreement and Political Declaration will be approved by majority. But disharmony at summit level is anathema to the EU. And so it comes about that May, having apparently got one over Spain, has now backed down.
So far, so meaningless. The problem for the UK and Gibraltar is that Spain really will have a veto if a trade deal is eventually put on the table. It could then, if it wished, seek to hold any such agreement up until or unless discussions over sovereignty were opened – which would present a very serious problem for May’s Government, assuming that she and it are still there.
She has been busy covering herself with two statements from the EU27, a letter from the president of the European Council and one from the president of the Commission, all providing assurances about Gibraltar’s status. On the one hand, Fabian Picardo has rowed in behind the Government. (He supports the draft deal, and Gibraltar voted Remain.) On the other, some Brexiteers are claiming a sell-out.
The key question arising from all this is: were Sanchez’s protests about more than face-saving? How likely is it that his government, or a future Spanish one, would seriously imperil British-Spanish relations over the future of the Rock? There is simply no way of knowing.