Gibraltar comes in from the cold

So far, so good. Joe Biden has spent a week in office without any major setbacks. His opening policy initiatives seem mostly popular; among them, moves to support free movement of people by cancelling Donald Trump’s immigration ban on several Muslim countries, restarting a limited amnesty program for unlawful immigrants and ending construction of the famous wall on the Mexican border.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, free movement isn’t having such a good run. The implementation from 1 January of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union (following an 11-month transitional period) has already created a lot of friction at the border, with travellers in both directions finding that there are unexpected pitfalls.

But there’s some better news further south, with the story that we looked at a few months ago about the status of Gibraltar, the tiny British possession at the southern tip of Spain. Because it shares a land border with the EU, it was particularly important that Brexit not lead to the imposition of new barriers to goods or people.

Like the main trade agreement, a deal on Gibraltar went right down to the wire. On 31 December, with hours to spare, Britain and Spain reached an agreement to preserve free movement into and out of Gibraltar – effectively, to make it part of the Schengen zone, with customs and immigration controls to be imposed on air and sea arrivals rather than on the current border.

The details are still to be worked out. They’ll be embodied in a formal treaty between Britain and the EU that’s supposed to be signed later this year. Spanish newspaper El Pais says it has seen the “framework agreement” on which the treaty will be based; it provides for Spain to be responsible for the application of Schengen rules in Gibraltar, although at least for a transitional period it will operate in conjunction with the EU’s own border officials.

Gibraltar will also commit to adapting its rules to EU standards in a host of areas, including residence permits, asylum claims, excise duties and environmental standards.

There’s some understandable apprehension on the Gibraltar side, particularly at the idea of Spanish personnel exercising authority on Gibraltan soil. Unlike the otherwise comparable cases of Scotland and Northern Ireland, there’s no constituency there for leaving the United Kingdom; the Gibraltans are determined not to be absorbed by Spain. But Britain is a long way away, and the alternative to harmonisation with the EU is being cut off from their dominant trading partner.

And of course they didn’t want to have to make this choice in the first place. Gibraltar voted overwhelmingly against Brexit in the 2016 referendum. But in a somewhat ironic twist, Brexit will now bring it greater integration with its neighbor rather than less.

The Spanish will need to tread carefully to ensure that it does not feel, on the Gibraltar side, like a Spanish takeover. But provided everyone’s sensitivities are respected, the gains to both sides could be substantial. And it may be that, in time, the Gibraltans will become more comfortable with the idea of Spain taking a greater role – although it’s hard to imagine that they will ever look kindly on its claims to sovereignty.

As many observers pointed out, Brexit did not suddenly become smooth sailing with the conclusion of the trade agreement, and both sides have indulged themselves in a degree of pettiness in recent weeks. But if the deal on Gibraltar comes through as planned, that at least will be one real gain to set off against the multitude of losses.

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