Hours before the Brexit transition period ended on New Year’s Eve, Spain announced it had struck a deal with the UK to maintain free movement to and from Gibraltar – a small portion of land on the southern tip of the Iberian peninsula that Britain controls but Spain claims as its own.
Officially remaining a British Overseas Territory, Gibraltar will now be part of the Schengen zone and follow EU rules, thus ensuring that a hard border does not separate it from the rest of Europe.
I wholeheartedly welcome today’s political agreement between the UK and Spain on Gibraltar’s future relationship with the EU. The UK has always been, and will remain, totally committed to the protection of the interests of Gibraltar and its British sovereignty 🇬🇮🇬🇧
— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) December 31, 2020
The status of Gibraltar
Gibraltar, with an area of just 6.8 sq km and a population of around 34,000 people, has been the subject of intense dispute between Spain and Britain for centuries.
This is mainly because of its strategic location. The territory, which is connected to Spain by a small strip of land and surrounded by sea on three sides, serves as the only opening from the Atlantic Ocean into the Mediterranean Sea, making it a key location on the shortest sea route between Europe and Asia via the Suez Canal.
Gibraltar fell into British hands after a war in 1713, and has since remained with Britain despite several attempts by Spain to retake it.
Due to its strategic importance, Gibraltar came to be highly fortified by Britain since the 18th century, thus earning its commonly known name– “the Rock”. Even during World War II, Gibraltar’s port was critically important for the Allies, and it continues to be a key base for NATO.
When Britain joined the EU in 1973, Gibraltar was a “crown colony”, but was reclassified as a British Overseas Territory in 2002. In two referendums, one in 1967 and the other in 2002, Gibraltarians overwhelmingly voted to remain a British territory.
Currently, the territory is self-governing in all aspects, except for defence and foreign policy, which are managed by London, and Gibraltarians have British citizenship.
The Spain-UK post-Brexit deal
The result of the 2016 Brexit referendum gave rise to the possibility of a hard border coming up between Gibraltar and the rest of Europe, despite 96 per cent of the vote in Gibraltar being in favour of remaining in the EU.
Gibraltarians mainly voted ‘Remain’ because the territory’s economy depends on an open border with Spain, which sends over 15,000 workers and 200 trucks there daily.
However, free movement will now continue thanks to the Spain-UK deal, as Gibraltar is being placed in the Schengen area, with Spain acting as a guarantor. The Schengen passport-free zone includes 22 countries from the EU, and four others –Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and Liechtenstein. The UK has never been a part of this zone.
According to a BBC report, the EU will now place Frontex border guards for the next four years to ensure free movement to and from Gibraltar, and the territory’s port and airport would become the external borders of the Schengen area.
“With this, the fence is removed, Schengen is applied to Gibraltar… it allows for the lifting of controls between Gibraltar and Spain,” Spain’s Foreign Minister Arancha González Laya said.
González Laya also said that the deal would mean the EU’s fair competition rules in areas such as the labour market and the environment would continue to apply to Gibraltar.
Although the deal covers free movement, it does not address the sovereignty dispute between Spain and the UK. Britain has called the deal a “political framework” for a separate treaty that it wants to sign with the EU concerning Gibraltar.