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UK and Gibraltar gear up for tough negotiations with EU

Catherine Feore

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Today (29 March), UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and Gibraltar Chief Minister Fabian Picardo met in the UK-Gibraltar Joint Ministerial Council. Discussions were focused on the need to reach an agreement on a future treaty between the UK and EU in respect of Gibraltar.

Gibraltar was not covered by the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement agreed at the end of 2020, however, an “in principle” political agreement on a “proposed framework for a EU/UK agreement or treaty on Gibraltar’s future relationship with the EU” was reached between Spain and the UK on 31 December 2020.

The discussions on 31 December went to the wire, in a statement at the time the Gibraltar Chief Minister described the discussions as: “So close to the wire that I think all of us involved in the negotiation felt the wire cutting into our flesh as we finalized arrangements in the early hours of this morning.”

The Chief Minister thanked the Spanish Prime Minister for reaching an agreement that looked beyond the disputed issue of sovereignty of the rock. He also thanked both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, at the time, for understanding the need for a differentiated solution for Gibraltar’s “socio-economic and geographic reality”.

Nevertheless, the agreement involved significant compromise on issues usually associated with a sovereign state. Spain, as the neighbouring Schengen member state, will be responsible for the implementation of Schengen. This will be managed by the introduction of a FRONTEX (EU border agency) operation for the control of entry and exit points from the Schengen area at the Gibraltar entry points, for an initial four year period. It will also seek to address maximized and unrestricted mobility of goods between Gibraltar and the European Union. The agreement also touched on a wide range of other issues from the level playing field to citizens’ rights. 

The European Commission is currently developing its own mandate for the negotiation of a Treaty, which is expected in the near future. This will then need to be agreed by the European Council before negotiations begin. A key issue for Gibrlatar will be the need to maintain freedom of movement given that 40% of its workforce crosses the border from Spain each day. The overseas territory is also heavily dependent on its offshore banking.

Ahead of today’s meeting British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said: “As a valued member of the UK family, we stand side by side with Gibraltar as we enter into the forthcoming negotiations with the EU on Gibraltar’s future relationship.

“We are committed to delivering a treaty which safeguards the UK's sovereignty of Gibraltar and supports the prosperity of both Gibraltar and the surrounding region.”

Current relations between the EU and UK have deteriorated, in relation to the commitments it made in the Withdrawal Agreement; in particular, the UK has taken a unilateral decision outside the agreements decision procedures to suspend many of the obligations for a six-month period to October. The Commission has started a legal infringement procedure against the UK for failure to respect the agreement and for being in breach of its commitment to act in good faith.

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UK to respond to EU legal action over Northern Ireland by mid-May

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Britain has agreed with the European Union that it will respond to the bloc’s legal action over how it has introduced new trading rules for Northern Ireland by mid-May, a spokeswoman for the government said on Wednesday (14 April), writes Elizabeth Piper.

The EU launched legal action against Britain in March for unilaterally changing trading arrangements for Northern Ireland that Brussels says are in breach of the Brexit divorce deal agreed with London last year.

Britain has denied that the move undermines the part of the Brexit deal that governs trade to the British province, saying it extended the grace period for checks on goods moving to Northern Ireland to ease their passage.

“In line with precedent that typically allows two months to respond to proceedings of this kind, we have agreed with the EU that we will respond to the Letter of Formal Notice by mid-May,” the spokeswoman said.

“We’ve been clear that the measures we have taken are lawful and part of a progressive and good faith implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol.”

Since leaving the EU’s single market at the end of last year, supermarkets in Northern Ireland have seen some shortages of food, and the British government has also delayed introducing checks on parcels and pets.

The difficulties stem from the terms of Britain’s withdrawal agreement, which leaves Northern Ireland in the EU single market for goods and so requires checks on goods arriving there from other parts of the United Kingdom.

The two sides are due to meet on Thursday for talks on Northern Ireland at a meeting unlikely to reach a breakthrough but seen more as a staging post as London and Brussels try to find a way to ease differences over trade.

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UK and EU edge closer to deal on Brexit checks in Northern Ireland

EU Reporter Correspondent

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The UK is edging towards a new deal with the EU on Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland with the potential for easing border checks on certain goods. Officials in London and Brussels have been involved in intense “technical talks” in the past two weeks over the future checks on food, plants and parcels going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

Downing Street’s official spokesman said the discussions had been constructive but that there were “still significant differences that need to be resolved”. The cabinet minister David Frost spoke by phone to the European commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič on Friday.

Sources said that while progress has been made on Northern Ireland, efforts did not involve removing checks on goods but instead were being concentrated on removing the series of “rolling deadlines” from the implementation of border controls.

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One option is a new series of agreed milestones to be achieved involving agreement with business and civic society before each stage of the protocol is implemented. It would mirror public health experts’ “data not dates” advice to Boris Johnson regarding the easing of lockdown in England.Advertisementhttps://fe51aebfd36b7b7e45cc937da958003b.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

The talks began a fortnight ago after relations with the EU reached a low point, with Brussels launching legal action against the UK for taking a unilateral decision to extend the grace period for checks on supermarket goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

A cabinet source played down the row, claiming the dispute was a result of an unfortunate “mismatch in the communications last month”. This reflects revived urgent efforts to sort out the situation and a recognition in London that a joint approach is the way forward.

This is a change in policy from February when Michael Gove demanded the protocol be delayed until 2023.

Last week the Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, told political parties in Belfast that the protocol would not be scrapped, despite demands by the Democratic Unionist party and others, and seven consecutive nights of violence in Northern Ireland.

There is urgent political need to calm the atmosphere in Northern Ireland but there is also recognition in London, Dublin and Brussels that any deal centring on the protocol will not address loyalist protests. Brexit checks down the Irish Sea have enraged loyalist communities who see the trade border as an assault on Northern Ireland’s place in the union of the UK.

EU sources have put it to UK officials that 90% of border checks could disappear if Britain agreed to align food standards with those of the bloc.

Ireland’s Europe minister, Thomas Byrne, told the BBC the situation was “delicate” but he said it would be “excellent” if a veterinary deal could be achieved as it would solve problems both in Northern Ireland and those facing food exporters in Great Britain.

But many see such a food agreement as unlikely because entering into such as deal would represent a complete U-turn for the UK, which opposed regulatory alignment to achieve a hard Brexit.

There have been suggestions that the border checks could be significantly eased if the UK adopted an agreement along the lines of that operating for Australia and New Zealand agrifood trade. However, industry insiders say this would not address loyalist concerns as it still requires paperwork.

The agrifood sector is instead urging the EU and UK to take a pragmatic approach by extending the categories of goods deemed not at risk of crossing into the Republic of Ireland to include food.

The current talks are focusing on a new implementation programme outlined in a plan delivered by London to Brussels a fortnight ago. The EU has also requested real-time access to customs and border check data in Belfast ports.

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UK asks for more time to respond to EU Brexit legal action: RTE TV

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Britain has asked for more time to respond to legal action taken by the European Union over its unilateral decision to ease requirements of the Northern Ireland Protocol, Ireland’s RTE television reported on Wednesday (14 April), writes Conor Humphries.

“The request came in two letters from the UK’s chief Brexit minister David Frost,” RTE correspondent Tony Connelly said in a Twitter post.

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