The Acting Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, supports the “integrity of the UK” against the secession of Scotland
In a meeting on 13th October Rajoy, managed to avoid the topic of Gibraltar with his British counterpart, Theresa May. The meeting, which has gone unreported in the UK press, took place in Madrid at Rajoy’s official residence at La Moncloa and lasted for 2 hours. The leaders did not appear at a press conference or make any official statements and the only reference to the meeting is a note issued by the Ministry of Communications which makes no mention of the contentious issue of Gibraltar. Instead, it refers to the commitment of Rajoy to support the territorial “integrity” of the UK and not to encourage “any kind of secessionism relating to its exit from the EU,” referring to calls by the Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon , to call a second referendum on independence.
Rajoy has traditionally left to his Foreign Minister, Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo, the thorny issue of Gibraltar. This time however, it was different, because the future exit of the UK from the EU against the majority will of the Gibraltarians, has given Spain a “historic opportunity” to advance its claim according to Margallo. The head of Spanish diplomacy has offered a formula for joint sovereignty for Gibraltar including the possibility that the Gibraltarians will be able to access Spanish nationality without renouncing their British citizenship, maintaining its tax system which is compatible with Community law and broad self-government, except the powers of foreign policy, defence and border control, to be exercised by Madrid and London, in exchange for the Rock remaining as part of the EU.
Earlier in October however, the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, reiterated to the Committee for Foreign Affairs its rejection of the Spanish proposal. “We have been very clear. We see no reason at all for a change of sovereignty of Gibraltar,” said Johnson, who said he had already communicated this response to his Spanish counterpart. In the event that Spain insisted on this approach, he warned, they would encounter “a completely implacable resistance, marble and rock by this government.”
The visit of the British premier is part of the tour being undertaken to various European capitals to sound out positions on the future relationship between the UK and the EU, following the unexpected triumph of Brexit in the referendum last June 23. May has already announced that in late March she will activate Article 50 of the Treaty of the Union, which provides for a period of two years to negotiate the departure from the European club. It is also anticipated there will be a commitment to a hard Brexit; i.e. to give priority to border control on access to the single market. This position has caused deep concern in the British business community and has caused a drop of almost 20% in the value of the pound.
According to the note of Moncloa, Rajoy has reiterated to May his regret at the decision of the British people and has stressed the importance of defending the interests of Spain and, in particular, the rights of Spanish citizens and Spanish companies are not adversely affected. In addition, he also spoke of the British living in Spain, those who visit as tourists and British companies settled here and the stressed that they don’t need to worry. Unlike most European leaders, Rajoy has not made it a condition that for London to have access to the single market they would need to accept free movement of workers.
Rajoy and May already had a telephone conversation last July, in which both pledged to work so that no British or Spanish citizen were adversely affected by the departure of the UK from the EU. It is estimated that Spain has more than 300,000 British residents, many of them retired, while nearly 200,000 Spaniards live in the UK. The two governments are already preparing an agreement to ensure their nationals residing in the respective countries have access to reciprocal health care once the break is effective. Rajoy, who briefly greeted May during the summit of G-20 in Hangzhou (China), in early September, told those attending at the reception at the Royal Palace during National Day that his intention was to “listen to” the approach of the British prime minister. A hard Brexit might also have negative consequences for Spain, and Britain is the second largest recipient of Spanish investments abroad, with an accumulated stock of 50,000 million euros and special emphasis on sectors such as banking, energy and telecommunications; the trade balance is favourable to Spain with more than 7,000 million euros in 2015; and 15.5 million Britons visiting Spain last year, spending more than EUR 14,000 million, making the UK market the first in the Spanish tourism sector. On the positive side, Spain aspires to host one of the two Community institutions whose headquarters will have to leave the UK: the European Medicines Agency and the European Banking Authority (EBA), while Madrid will be competing with other European financial centres to attract companies that choose to leave the City.