2021 took its first steps yesterday, already transformed into history despite its freshness. Much remains to be discovered in these twelve months, but January 1 has been forever etched in the memory of Europe for having been the day that for the first time in almost half a century the EU and the United Kingdom let go of their hands after an amicable divorce. The new beginning went smoothly, with an atmosphere of hope that was multiplied by the agreement ‘in extremis’ of Spain and London to apply the Schengen rules in Gibraltar and thus avoid the border controls that were feared after the British exit from the club.
“The practical result at the border is that the fence is demolished,” explained the Minister of Foreign Affairs, EU and Cooperation, Arancha González Laya, a few hours before New Year’s Eve. The pact, which has already been sent to the community authorities for their approval, was the note of relief that was missing to close with a good taste in the mouth negotiations that began half a year ago and represented the only loose fringe to avoid a Hard Brexit.
The United Kingdom has been a non-EU country since yesterday. Four and a half years after the British voted in a referendum in favor of the community club march, the country has started its separate path. From now on, it is subject to its own laws, under the jurisdiction of its courts, with control of its waters and has the freedom to negotiate trade agreements with countries outside the community bloc. That breakdown that caused so much fear began without setbacks, largely thanks to the agreement on the future relationship that Brussels and London agreed on on December 24 to avoid being as traumatic as possible for both.
As quiet reigned in the port of Dover and at the entrance to the Channel Tunnel, which connects England with France, the only voice of regret was heard from the Chief Minister of Scotland. Nicola Sturgeon urged the EU to “keep a light on” because he ensures that the northernmost country of the British Isles “will return soon”, become an independent nation. Not surprisingly, one of the fronts open to Prime Minister Boris Johnson in this new journey without the EU is to deal with a new secessionist referendum demanded by the nationalists of the SNP party.
In Gibraltar, on the other hand, the sensations that were breathed were very different. Its inhabitants said they were relieved after the London and Madrid agreement that will guarantee free movement with Spain. The consensus achieved was key in the Rock, which is accessed daily by 15,000 people, most of them Spanish, to work. Added to this are the thousands of tourists who come attracted by the duty-free shops to an enclave of just 6.8 square kilometers that is also a place of passage of 50,000 trucks a year since it imports all the food it consumes.
Although yesterday was a public holiday and the usual coming and going of workers and tourists was not observed, Gibraltarians praised the agreement reached late Thursday, shortly before the Brexit transition period expired. If this had not been achieved, the reinforcement of the controls that had to be implemented and the stamping of passports would have considerably delayed circulation and would have transformed it into a complicated border.
Even so, some of the residents of the Rock did not hide their concern about the fact that Spain will control the application of the Schengen rules, as Gibraltar is not a sovereign State and cannot be a member of said space. In this sense, the European agency Frontex will play a role in assisting in controls both at the port and at the airport, which will be points of entry, during the four-year transition period.
The British who travel to the Rock, yes, they will have to use their passport, since in the future they will be entering the Schengen area, of which the United Kingdom is not part, as González Laya advanced. The minister was confident that in six months the EU treaty that will regulate this new relationship between Spain and Gibraltar may be closed.
Brussels, although it has started 2021 without the heavy backpack of Brexit taking over its agenda and with the satisfaction of having sealed a good agreement with London that maintains the integrity of the single market, has new challenges. One of the most important will be to cover the holes in integration that have been exposed, in addition to ensuring that he is not left behind now that his until now faithful British companion becomes a competitor.