With the fallout from a private dinner and the Prime Minister's update to the House of Commons, this week Brexit was dominated by the after effects of last week's European Council summit. The week began with an almighty row after details of Theresa May’s private dinner with Jean Claude Juncker were leaked to German newspapers. A similar leak happened after the Prime Minister's last private dinner with the Commission President, and fingers are being pointed at Mr Juncker's Chief of Staff Martin Selmayr, nicknamed the monster inside the Berlaymont. The Prime Minister asked for him to be sacked after the last leak, however he reportedly remains essential to Juncker's control of the Commission, the most powerful Chief of Staff in the institution's history.
The fallout from this has been swift in Brussels with Angela Merkel reportedly very angry with the Commission over the leaks, particularly as they suggested that the Prime Minister was begging the Commission President for help in progressing the talks.
The dinner did, of course, lead to a cordial joint statement committing to an acceleration of the talks, but this latest episode is shaking belief in national capitals that the Commission, and particularly Jean Claude Juncker’s team, are really able to deal with the complexity of the negotiations. There is clearly bad blood between Mr Selmayr and the UK team and it remains to be seen if the two sides can cooperate and negotiate effectively when private meetings continue to be leaked.
After the leak saga the Prime Minister updated the Commons on the outcome of last week’s EU Council summit, which saw the EU27 agree to begin internal preparations for trade talks with the UK. No formal commitment has been given for the start of phase two, but it looks increasingly likely that trade talks will start in December, assuming there has been sufficient progress on the financial settlement. Most observers believe a deal on citizens’ rights is close, and there is now widespread acceptance on both sides that the Irish question cannot be settled completely without tackling the future trade and customs relationship between the UK and the EU, and any transition period.
There has been much talk of how to avoid a hard border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, however not much attention has so far been placed on the other British land border with the EU - the border between Gibraltar and Spain.
As Gibraltar is not in the Schengen zone and crucially not in the EU customs union either, its frontier with Spain is a hard border. This means that in principle, all goods have to be declared at the border and customs duties are applied on goods entering Spain.
Gibraltar’s relationship with the EU is a complex one. When the UK joined the EU Spain was still under Franco’s rule and was not an EU member. Gibraltar was therefore geographically cut off from the rest of the EU. As most of its food was imported from North Africa, the UK ensured an opt-out from the customs union which remains to this day.
Politically Spain still claims Gibraltar and despite attempts to normalise the situation and relations between London and Madrid, it remains a disputed border.
So it is a hard border yet it is also an open border. Some 13,000 people cross the border every day, mainly for work, and although there are systematic checks, these are not applied to everyone. On most days the border is fluid and these 13,000 people, only half of whom are Spanish, are able to live in Spain but work in Gibraltar by making two border crossings each day. Goods bought on one side of the border are expected to be declared at a separate customs point and are backed up by electronic checks away from the border. In general the border is open and fluid and works well.
So can this be a model for Northern Ireland?
Estimates vary a little, but around 30,000 people are believed to cross the Ireland-UK border daily for work, doing so at many different crossing points. Gibraltar shows that a border with the customs union does not have to lead to chaos and long queues on a daily basis, although of course there is always the potential for governments to cause border hold-ups when they see fit, as happens periodically on the Gibraltar/Spain border.
Political will is necessary to maintain a free flowing border, and that exists between Dublin, London and Belfast in greater quantities than between the British and Spanish governments. Both London and Dublin want an open border, something which has not always been the case in Madrid.
Gibraltar has a very open, services-focused economy, so as it doesn’t make much, it therefore needs to import most of its goods. As a result, it doesn’t need to worry too much about imports and because it is so small, any impact of undeclared goods on the Spanish or European market is unlikely to be significant. So border authorities on both sides can afford to be a little more relaxed than they could be on the larger Ireland-UK border.
The Gibraltar border is also complicated by the fact that the airport runs alongside it and is built on land which Spain claims was not part of the original Treaty of Utrecht which ceded Gibraltar to the UK in the first place, a claim disputed by Gibraltar. Agreement was reached some time ago to build terminals on either side of the border and allow the airport to become a truly cross border airport, similar to those in Basel and Geneva on the Swiss/French border. Those plans were ditched by the centre right Partido Popular government when they came to power but remain an option for future development of the airport.
There is no airport yet on the Irish border which could serve as a model and the Irish border is of course much longer than the Gibraltar border, but similarities remain.
A smart border, with checks away from the border itself, will be needed for customs checks, however crucially checks on people, which are currently needed in Gibraltar because the Spanish side of the border is a Schengen external border, will not be needed in Northern Ireland because the common travel area will remain.
So for all the problems between Spain and the UK and the government of Gibraltar, the border between the Rock and the mainland is an example of where pragmatism and economic interest keep a border under high demand working. It offers some clues to a potential solution on the Irish border.