Post-Brexit deal on border between Gibraltar and Spain remains unresolved

<span>Spain's foreign minister, José Manuel Albares, at the European commission, in Brussels, 16 May.</span><span>Photograph: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Spain's foreign minister, José Manuel Albares, at the European commission, in Brussels, 16 May.Photograph: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images

Talks on a post-Brexit deal to govern the border between Gibraltar and Spain have broken up without an agreement, although both sides insisted a deal was “getting closer”.

David Cameron, the UK foreign secretary, met the European Commission vice president, Maroš Šefčovič, in Brussels to discuss the British overseas territory on the Iberian peninsula, which has been in limbo since Britain left the EU.

Spain’s foreign minister, José Manuel Albares, and Gibraltar’s chief minister, Fabian Picardo, also took part in the talks, the second time the quartet have met in this format.

A joint statement hailed significant progress since last month’s meeting. “Today’s discussions took place in a constructive atmosphere, with important breakthroughs and additional areas of agreement. All sides are reassured that the agreement is getting closer and will work closely and rapidly on outstanding areas towards an overall EU-UK agreement,” it said.

But the failure to reach an agreement – said to be within “within kissing distance” last month – raises doubts about whether differences can be reconciled before the European elections in early June. After the voting, from 6 to 9 June, the EU institutions change their leadership, a factor likely to further delay the agreement.

Speaking to reporters, Šefčovič declined to give any specifics on dates, but said: “We want to achieve rapid progress and, if possible, the conclusion of the negotiations and the outstanding agreement, which is in the interest of all of us, as soon as possible.”

There had been “significant progress” on issues relating to the economy, trade, environment and social wellbeing, he added. But there was no mention of border checks, the thorniest problem in the talks.

Under the proposed free-movement deal Gibraltar’s airport would be an external border of the EU. The UK and Gibraltar have resisted Spain’s insistence that Spanish border officials be based at the airport, which is also home to an RAF base. Instead, they have proposed officials from the EU border agency, Frontex, carry out checks.

Lord Cameron, who faces criticism from Conservative backbenchers over anything deemed to diminish UK sovereignty, left Brussels without speaking to the media.

Gibraltar, which voted by 96% to remain in the EU, depends hugely on access to the European market. Every day 15,000 people cross the border for work or leisure, making the end to free movement of people, arising from the UK’s hard Brexit, especially problematic for the territory. Gibraltar was not included in the EU-UK trade and cooperation agreement signed in 2020 and has been operating on ad-hoc arrangements.

The mooted deal has been heavily criticised by Sir Bill Cash, a veteran Eurosceptic, who chairs the Commons’ European scrutiny committee. In a letter to the government last week he lambasted a plan to allow checks by EU border guards at Gibraltar airport as “erod[ing] British sovereignty to the point of meaninglessness”.

The committee, he wrote, suspected that the UK was “prepared to concede an arrangement that will leave Gibraltar’s frontier British in all but name”.

Cameron also held routine talks on the Brexit withdrawal deal and the UK-EU trade and cooperation agreement with Šefčovič.

Nearly eight years after he lost the Brexit referendum, Cameron tweeted a picture of himself shaking hands with Šefčovič, captioned: “The UK and EU share a close and pragmatic partnership, addressing shared challenges together.”

His tweet said they had discussed “maximising opportunities in our trade and cooperation agreement, tackling illegal migration and progressing negotiations on Gibraltar”.

The meeting touched on a wide array of topics, including Britain’s hopes to improve electricity trading, which has become more difficult since the UK left the EU’s single energy market. The two sides also discussed long-running disputes over British seed potato exports to the EU and fishing rights in the Dogger Bank nature conservation zone.