Theresa May's government appears to have “more important things” to worry about than the fate of 28,000 Gibraltarians, according to Spanish sources who warned Gibraltar will crash out of the Single Market without the cushion of a Brexit deal transition deal.
After Mrs May triggered the Brexit negotiations in March, the EU blindsided the British government by insisting that any deal could only apply to Gibraltar if Spain agreed. The EU-27 negotiating mandate effectively takes Madrid's side in the centuries-old territorial dispute over the rock.
Senior Spanish government sources today told The Guardian that the British government had made no proposals at all to it regarding the future of Gibraltar.
In a thinly veiled swipe at Mrs May’s struggles since she lost the Conservative majority at the general election, the source said: “I honestly believe they have other more important issues.”
They insisted that the effective Spanish veto over a Brexit deal for Gibraltar also applied to any UK-EU transition deal designed to soften the blow of leaving the single market and customs union.
Such a deal, if successfully negotiated, would preserve the status quo for a limited period after Brexit day on March 29, 2019. In Gibraltar’s case it would buy businesses valuable extra time to prepare for the return of customs controls.
The Telegraph asked the European Commission, which is handling negotiations on behalf of the EU-27, if it agreed with the Spanish analysis.
Officials pointed to the negotiating mandate, which reads: “After the United Kingdom leaves the Union, no agreement between the EU and the United Kingdom may apply to the territory of Gibraltar without the agreement between the Kingdom of Spain and the United Kingdom.”
Theresa May's spokesman has said: "The [Brexit] deal must work for Gibraltar too."
A spokesman for the government of Gibraltar refused to comment. However, Gibraltar’s prime minister, Fabian Picardo, has previously said “that a hard Brexit would pose an “existential threat” to the island.
"I think the situation with Gibraltar is crystal clear,” the Spanish source said. “Gibraltar became associated with the EU project because of their dependence in the UK. This is going to stay until March 2019. In 2019 when the UK leaves the EU, Gibraltar will leave with the UK.”
“This is what we are telling the Gibraltarians”, the source added. “If you want to have your existing status, you will have to talk with us.”
Such is the reliance of the island on its relationship with close neighbour Spain, that just four per cent of Gibraltarians voted Leave in the referendum.
Spain on Wednesday tweeted a Brexit-related infographic that reiterated that any Brexit deal for Gibraltar would need Spanish approval.
In August, Spain's foreign minister insisted that Madrid would not jeopardise the Brexit negotiations by making the recovery of Gibraltar a condition of the talks.