ANALYSIS: Between The Rock and a Hard Brexit

It has long been Northern Ireland that has bedevilled efforts to negotiate an orderly Brexit, but now another British territory has emerged to haunt the talks: Gibraltar.

ANALYSIS: Between The Rock and a Hard Brexit
A group of nuns cross the border of the British overseas territory of Gibraltar. Photo: AFP

With the hours counting down to Sunday's summit to sign an accord on overseeing Britain's departure form the European Union, Spain has threatened to bring matters to a halt.

“As a country, we can't conceive that what will happen with the future of Gibraltar will depend on a negotiation between Britain and the European Union,” Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said.

“As a consequence, today, I regret to say that a pro-European government like Spain's would vote no to Brexit unless there are changes,” he told business leaders in Madrid on Tuesday.

READ MORE: Spain PM Pedro Sanchez threatens Brexit deal over Gibraltar

Photo: AFP

In Brussels, EU officials and diplomats from member states are racing to finalise two texts: the Brexit divorce agreement and a parallel political declaration about future EU-UK ties.

The former has been approved by British premier Theresa May's cabinet and by the European Commission. It is seen here as all but ready and preparations continue apace for Sunday's signing.

But Spain has a problem with the text and wants it fixed. Briefly put, the withdrawal deal does not explicitly state that Madrid has a veto on future relations between the EU and Gibraltar after Brexit.

'Best endeavours'

In April 2017, when Brussels and London began the marathon task of negotiating the terms of Britain's departure under Article 50 of the EU treaty, the guidelines were clear.

“After the United Kingdom leaves the Union, no agreement between the EU and the United Kingdom may apply to the territory of Gibraltar without the agreement between the Kingdom of Spain and the United Kingdom,” the EU said.   

Now, however, the formal withdrawal agreement on the table appears to suggest that, after the 21-month transition period post-March 29, relations will be decided simply by London and Brussels.

Article 184 of the deal binds the European Union and the United Kingdom to “use their best endeavours, in good faith and in full respect of their respective legal orders” to meet the agreed goals.

This seems to be enough for British negotiators, who insist that the Withdrawal Agreement covers Gibraltar.

“The PM has been clear that we will not exclude Gibraltar… from our negotiations on the future relationship. We want to get a deal that works for the whole UK family,” a spokesperson said.

Spain is not convinced.   

Foreign minister Josep Borrell has been in Brussels this week pressing EU negotiator Michel Barnier to remove the alleged “ambiguity” of Article 184 and confirm Spain's de facto veto.

European officials are loathe to reopen the withdrawal text, which could stiffen resistance from British anti-Europeans or allow other states to pile in with last-minute special requests.

Instead, Borrell has suggested that language on Gibraltar be included in the 20-page political declaration on future ties that will be approved alongside the legal withdrawal treaty.

EU 'working on it'

On Tuesday, Sanchez had a phone conversation with EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker — who sees May on Wednesday — and plans to talk to EU Council president Donald Tusk.

“We are aware of the Spanish government's problems and we are working on it,” Commission spokesperson Margaritis Schinas said.   

A strategic port on Spain's southern shore at the mouth of the Mediterranean, Gibraltar — known by locals as The Rock — has been governed by Britain since the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht.

Many Spaniards living in the poor surrounding Andalusia region commute into Gibraltar to work.

Since the Brexit referendum in June 2016, Spain's position on Gibraltar has been through a series of evolutions.   

Initially it said it would seek co-sovereignty over it.

Later it played down the issue, but now — with Brexit day looming — it appears to be trying to squeeze out concessions.   

“It's no surprise that we are seeing the Spanish government raise issues at the last minute,” complained Gibraltar's chief minister Fabian Ricardo.   

“The language of vetoes and exclusions should be the language of the past. It has no place in the modern Europe of today.”   

Madrid has traditionally accused this six-square-kilometre (1,500 acre) rock, home to 30,000 people, of being a tax haven and hub for tobacco smugglers.

It has demanded shared management of its small airport and an exchange of tax data with what the United Nations regards as a non self-governing territory.  

After the Brexit referendum, in which Gibraltarians voted massively to stay in Europe while mainland Britain voted out, London and Madrid began bilateral talks on matters of disagreement — but not of sovereignty.

Madrid wants to resolve these issues before the end of the post-Brexit transition period initially foreseen as December 31, 2020.   

Keeping its veto on any EU decision on Gibraltar would give it leverage in these talks — unless it is not made explicit in this week's agreements.   

In this, Madrid — traditionally a supporter of the European Commission's policies — has surprised many in Brussels.   

“The Spaniards are serious, it is not a joke, but we are going to find a solution”, said one European diplomat.

Spanish officials feel that their cooperative attitude on other issues gives them a strong base to make this claim.   

“It is not exorbitant at all, we have special legitimacy to ask for it,” a Madrid government source told AFP.

   By Toni Cerda / AFP 


Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

After years of campaigns and promises British citizens living abroad finally won the lifelong right to vote in UK general elections in April 2022. But campaigners say more needs to be done to allow all those Britons abroad to be able cast their votes easily.

Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

What’s in the law?

The Elections Act 2022 introduced several changes to the current legislation on electoral participation. Among these, it removed the rule by which British citizens lose their voting rights in the UK if they have lived abroad for more than 15 years

The new rules also abolished the requirement to have been previously registered in the UK electoral roll to become an overseas voter. In addition, the registration in the electoral roll will now last up to three years instead of only one year.

It is estimated that these changes could increase the number of overseas voter registrations by some 3 million. But the way new measures will be applied in practice is still to be defined.

READ ALSO: ‘Mixed feelings’ – British citizens in Europe finally get right to vote for life

Defining the practicalities

Under the new law, Britons living abroad will have to register to vote in the last place they were registered in the UK. This means that people who have never lived in the UK will be ineligible to vote, regardless of how long they have been overseas, while those who left when they were children will be able to use a parent or guardian’s address.

But given that the UK does not require residents to register with local councils, how to prove previous UK residence? “Typical documents accepted as a proof of residence are Council tax or utilities bills, but not everyone will have them or will have kept them in an international move,” says Fiona Godfrey, co-founder of the British in Europe coalition.

Ballot papers are pictured in stacks in a count centre as part of the 2019 UK general election. (Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN / AFP)

Other questions concern how people will effectively cast their ballot. UK citizens overseas will be able to vote by post or by proxy or in person at their polling station if they are in the UK at the time of the election. However, few people are likely to travel to the UK for an election and in the past there have problems and delays with postal voting.

The Electoral Commission has recommended that overseas electors appoint a proxy to vote on their behalf. But who could that be for people who have been away from their constituency for a long time?

New secondary legislation will have to answer these questions, defining how to be included in the electoral roll and how to exercise the voting right in practice.

According to British in Europe, the government should present draft legislation in the first half of the year so that the parliament can adopt it before summer and registrations of overseas voters can start in the autumn.

British in Europe survey

British in Europe are currently running a survey to understand the difficulties UK citizens abroad may face in the registration and voting process, as well as their intention to participate in elections.

The survey asks for instance which documents people can access to prove their previous residence in the UK, what problems they had voting in the past, and if and how they plan to vote in the future.

“We need to get an up-to-date picture of British citizens living around the world and have information to make recommendations to the government, as it prepares secondary legislation,” Godfrey said. “If millions of people will exercise their voting rights, there will be consequences for council registration offices, post office and authorities that will manage the process, among other things” she argued.

The right to vote concerns only UK parliamentary elections and national referendums, not elections in the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, or at local level.

The survey is open to UK citizens living anywhere in the world and is available at this link.