Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Ros in the Lords: Gibraltar

Last night in the Lords saw a debate on the current situation in Gibraltar, which raised a number of concerns about the relationship between Gibraltar and Spain. Ros chose to pick up on the failure of the European Union to address the freedom of movement issues involved...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (LD):

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Baroness for tabling this debate and for her speech in which all her experience was brought to bear in a characteristically incisive and robust style. I should make clear at the outset that I am not an expert on Gibraltar, but last year, as the serious damage done by the level of Spanish border checks became clear, one aspect of the situation reminded me of somewhere that I know well at the other end of the Mediterranean, on the island of Cyprus. In both cases, a historic legacy is causing monumental problems for citizens today, and they are not receiving adequate support from the institutions that ought to be protecting them. The people of Gibraltar are UK citizens and have been for 300 years, and while the bilateral relationship between the UK and Spain is paramount, Gibraltarians have another citizenship as members of the European Union, and it is that issue on which I wish to focus my remarks.

It is an irony that while the EU has become increasingly active in the diplomatic field as a result of the creation of the External Action Service, it not been sufficiently active in resolving tensions within the EU itself, as Cyprus and Gibraltar graphically demonstrate. To be slightly tongue in cheek, I wonder whether there ought to be an internal action service. A recent report on enlargement from the House of Lords EU Select Committee noted that, when countries join the Union without prior resolution of bilateral disputes, it results in the import of those disputes into the everyday decision-making of the EU. We see that constantly with regard to Gibraltar and Cyprus, and I fear that Serbia and Kosovo may be coming down the track.

There is an inconsistency at the heart of the Commission’s approach to these situations. One the one hand, it quite rightly does not get involved in sovereignty disputes but, on the other, it does not always uphold EU legislation in a neutral way. Despite the agreement made in Cordoba in 2006, for example, recent EU passenger rights legislation excluded Gibraltar. The result of this would have been that not only Gibraltarians but any EU citizen passing through the airport would not have benefited from the passenger rights. The European Parliament has subsequently accepted an amendment tabled by Liberal Democrat MEP Graham Watson, which remedied this situation. The matter is now coming to the Council and I hope that the Minister can say today that the Government will fight hard to keep the amendment in.

On Wednesday of this week there will be further votes at the European Parliament plenary session on the same set of issues—only this time it is about the safer skies initiative on air traffic control. Amendments tabled by the Spanish centre right party at the transport committee have succeeded in removing Gibraltar from this legislation, which is disgraceful. We now have to hope that the Parliament will overcome that and put Gibraltar back in. I would like an assurance from the Minister that the Government are doing everything they can.

I believe that the Commission needs to take its responsibilities much more seriously. After years of problems with Spanish authorities carrying out border checks, the escalation of the problem last autumn has meant that the Commission cannot continue to turn a blind eye to it. I am surprised that the conclusion of its investigation was that no EU law had been breached. It seems a strange interpretation of free movement; perhaps future visits should be unannounced and incognito so that the real picture emerges. It was disgraceful that neither the Commission nor the Spanish Government were prepared to publish the conclusions that had been reached. It took an official access-to-documents request by Sir Graham Watson to ascertain that the Commission had described the intensity of the border checks as “unjustifiable”. Therefore, I ask the Minister to outline what steps the British Government are taking with the Commission to ensure that the rights of the citizens of Gibraltar will be upheld.

What we really need is a lasting settlement to stop these incursions, and there is one other potential course of action regarding the border which the Minister might consider. Is it possible to create a legal position whereby Gibraltar, alone from the rest of the UK, could join the Schengen agreement? If this could be done for Gibraltar, then the border crossings could be removed. It has been done—in reverse, so to speak—in that there are islands which are part of France but which have been excluded from Schengen. As both Britain and Spain are members of NATO, I, too, would be interested in hearing whether the incursions of the navy into Gibraltarian waters have been discussed.

European Commission President Barroso recently said:
Free movement of people is a fundamental principle of Europe, a fundamental principle of the treaties, indeed one of the core elements that distinguish our Union ... the principle of free movement exists and … is applicable throughout the Union, without discrimination, because we don’t want citizens of first class and citizens of second class in Europe.
He is quite right to say that, but he now has to act on that with regard to Gibraltar.

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