Spain and UK agree 11th-hour border deal for Gibraltar

Gibraltar will become part of Europe's passport-free zone to keep movement fluid on its border with Spain in a landmark deal reached just hours before Britain leaves the EU custom's union and single market, Spain's top diplomat said Thursday, December 31.

Spain and UK agree 11th-hour border deal for Gibraltar

Negotiators representing the governments in Madrid, London and Gibraltar have been working around the clock to ink a deal to avoid the creation of a new “hard border” between the tiny British territory and the European Union that would have caused huge disruption for travellers and businesses on both sides of the line.

“We have reached an initial agreement with the United Kingdom which will serve as the foundation for a future treaty between the European Union and the United Kingdom concerning Gibraltar,” Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya told reporters in Madrid.

In a separate address, Gibraltar's Chief Minister Fabian Picardo said the deal set the stage for a treaty that would allow for “maximised and unrestricted mobility” of people and goods across the border.

“We're going to avert the worst effects of a hard Brexit,” he said of the deal which was finalised in “the early hours of this morning” describing it as “a proposed framework for a UK-European Union agreement or treaty on Gibraltar's future relationship with the EU”.

The deal was announced a week after Britain reached its own last-minute post-Brexit trade agreement with the EU although it did not cover Gibraltar, a tiny British territory on Spain's southern tip which is historically claimed by Madrid.

The agreement was hailed on Twitter by the Spanish and British prime ministers, with Spain's Pedro Sanchez saying it marked the start of “a new era” that would allow for “the removal of barriers”, while Britain's Boris Johnson “wholeheartedly” welcomed the deal, stressing the UK's commitment to “the protection of the interests of Gibraltar and its British sovereignty.”

Schengen at the border

Under terms of the agreement, Gibraltar would become a part of the Schengen zone with Spain acting as guarantor, Gonzalez Laya said. Schengen covers most of the 27 EU members, along with Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Lichtenstein.

“With this (agreement), the fence is removed, Schengen is applied to Gibraltar… it allows for the lifting of controls between Gibraltar and Spain,” she said.

“Until the agreement comes into force, we will use the arrangements permitted under Schengen to relax controls at the border,” she said, indicating the UK and the EU were expected to sign the deal “within an estimated six months”.

Picardo said Spain would be responsible for managing the Schengen arrangement which would be implemented by Frontex, the agency charged with protecting the EU's external borders. “This will be managed by the introduction of a Frontex operation for the control of entry and exit points,” he said. The arrangement will be in place for an initial four-year period.

A desire to keep things flowing smoothly at the border explains why in 2016 nearly 96 percent of voters in Gibraltar backed staying in the EU, while in Britain proper the referendum vote was 52-48 percent in favour of leaving the bloc.

With a land area of just 6.8-square kilometres (2.6-square miles), Gibraltar is entirely dependent on imports to supply its 34,000 residents, a no-deal scenario would have slowed the cross-border movement of goods with new customs procedures.

Border fluidity is also key for some 15,000 people who cross into Gibraltar every day to work, accounting for half of the territory's workforce. Most are Spanish and live in the impoverished neighbouring area of La Linea.

'Good news' for workers

At the border, few workers had heard about the agreement but expressed relief a deal had been reached.

Ada Vazquez, a 32-year-old single mother who has been crossing the border to work for the past 14 years, told AFP it was “good news”. “This agreement is a relief for us,” said Vazquez who works in a chocolate shop. “I was afraid there would be long queues.”

Gibraltar also welcomes around 10 million visitors per year, mainly day-trippers who cross from Spain, drawn in part by the duty-free shopping.

For years, EU residents have only had to show their national identity documents at the border. Had there been no deal, they would have had to have their passports stamped sparking fears of long queues “lasting hours”.

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UK driving licences in Spain: When no news is bad news

The UK Ambassador to Spain has given an update on the driving licence debacle, with nothing new to genuinely give hope to the thousands of in-limbo drivers whose increasing frustration has led one group to try and take matters into their own hands.

UK driving licences in Spain: When no news is bad news

It’s been almost five months since UK driving licence holders residing in Spain were told they could no longer drive on Spanish roads. 

Since that fateful May 1st, an unnamed number of the approximately 400,000 UK nationals who are residents in Spain, as well as hundreds if not thousands of Spaniards and foreign nationals who passed their driving test in the UK, have not been able to use their vehicles in Spain or even rent one. 

What adds insult to injury is that British tourists visiting Spain can rent a car without any issue. The fact that Spanish licence holders living in the UK can also continue to exchange their permits in the UK 21 months after Brexit came into force is equally hard to swallow.

READ MORE: ‘An avoidable nightmare’ – How UK licence holders in Spain are affected by driving debacle

The latest update from UK Ambassador to Spain Hugh Elliott on September 27th has done little to quell the anger and sense of helplessness felt by those caught in this bureaucratic rabbit hole.

“I wanted to talk to you personally about the driving licences negotiations, which I know are continuing to have a serious impact on many of you,” Elliott began by saying.

“As the government’s representative in Spain, I hear and understand your frustrations. I too am frustrated by the pace.

“We previously thought, we genuinely thought, that we’d have concluded negotiations by the summer. 

“Many of you have quite rightly mentioned that I expressed the hope to you that we’d have you back on the road by the end of July.

“Now the truth is it has taken much longer, as there have been unforeseen issues that we have been working very hard to resolve. 

“And I’m as disappointed as you are by the length of time that this is actually taking. 

“But, please, be assured that we are resolving those issues, one by one. There are only a couple of issues left, but they are complex.”

It has previously been suggested by the UK Embassy that Spain has asked for data provision to form part of the exchange agreement, and that British authorities were reluctant to share said information on British drivers’ records, including possible infractions. 

Whether this is still one of the causes of the holdups is unknown, given how opaque the Embassy is being in this regard. 

“We’re working on this every day, it remains a priority,” the UK Ambassador continued.

“There is a lot going on behind the scenes, even if it doesn’t feel like it to you. 

“I know too that you want a timescale and you want an update after every meeting.

“But I’m afraid I just can’t give you those things in this negotiation.” 

The ambassador’s words are unlikely to appease those who are still unable to drive. 

A few weeks ago, a Facebook group called “Invasion of the British embassy in Madrid for the DL exchange issue” was set up, which so far has more than 400 members. 

The group’s administrator, Pascal Siegmund, is looking to set up a meeting with the British Embassy and Spanish authorities to shed light on the impact that not being allowed to drive is having on the life of thousands of UK licence holders in Spain. 

Many of those affected are sharing their stories online, explaining how, due to administrative errors on the part of Spain’s DGT traffic authority, they were unable to process their licence exchange before the deadline. 

This contrasts with the little sympathy shown by UK licence holders who were able to exchange and other commentators, who accuse those in limbo of not having bothered to complete the process, arguing that it’s essentially their own fault.

READ ALSO: Not all Brits in Spain who didn’t exchange UK driving licences are at fault 

“Many of you also continue to ask why you can’t drive while the talks are continuing,” Elliott remarked.

“It is not in the gift of the UK government to reinstate the measures which previously allowed you to continue to drive whilst the negotiations were ongoing earlier in the year. 

“As we said previously, we did request the reinstatement of those measures several times, but this wasn’t granted.”

It’s worth noting that since the news broke on May 1st that UK licence holders residing in Spain for more than six months could no longer drive, no Spanish news outlet has covered the story again. 

Pressure from citizen groups such as the one recently set up and increased awareness about the issue in English-language news sites such as The Local Spain is perhaps the best chance in-limbo drivers have of their voices being heard and the driving licence debacle being finally fixed. 

“I’d say we’re genuinely still making progress,” UK Ambassador Elliott concluded, practically the same message as in previous updates.

“I get how frustrating it is to hear that, but we are making progress. We’re in discussions almost daily about outstanding issues. 

“And I remain very optimistic that we will reach an agreement and hope it will be soon. 

“But as I say, I can’t give you a definitive timetable. 

“And so, the advice that we have been giving all along, which is that you should consider taking the Spanish test if you do need to drive urgently, remains valid. Though we appreciate that’s hard.”