February 1, 2024 / Riskline Informer

February Travel Outlook: The Spain-Gibraltar travel dispute explained

Riskline travel outlook February

by Claudia Gualdi

Where does the issue arise?

The relationship between Spain and Gibraltar has changed after Brexit. The British Overseas Territory (BOT) is no longer part of the border-free Schengen Area. The prolonged dispute between the United Kingdom (UK) and the European Union (EU) revolves around passport controls at the border with Spain. This causes daily disruptions for tourists and business travellers crossing the two sides.

What’s the dispute about?

On the Spanish side of the border, customs and identity checks are carried out by the Spanish Civil Guard and the Spanish National Police. On Gibraltar’s side, the HM Customs officials and the Borders and the Coastguard Agency conduct passport checks. The core of the controversy concerns who should be entitled to conduct passport controls at Gibraltar’s airport.

Spain asserts its police force’s entitlement to passport controls and proposes their joint utilization in any agreement. The UK advocates for Frontex, the EU agency for managing external borders, to operate border controls. Previously, British diplomats proposed checking travelers flying to the enclave at departing UK airports. Similar to the French official’s operations in London for Eurostar trains directed to Paris and Brussels.

What are the implications for commuters between Spain and Gibraltar?

The dispute not only regards Gibraltar’s airport. After losing EU citizenship, Gibraltarians and British expat residents in southern Spain have moved back to Gibraltar. The new regulation made it harder for them to stay in Spain, and within the whole Schengen area, with a maximum of 90 every 180 days.

The limit particularly affects individuals doing hybrid work in both countries and thousands of daily commuters. The long waiting lines are causing anger and Gibraltar passport holders are reportedly facing long waiting times. But thanks to an interim agreement between Gibraltar and Spain they are exempted from presenting entry requirements.

Spanish border officials frequently require UK passport holders, including those with Gibraltarian residency cards, to submit additional documents. These may include proof of a fully paid hotel booking with no cancellation fee, a valid reason for the visit, a return flight ticket, and evidence of sufficient funds to cover the stay and departure from the country. Yet, these entry requirements are not so clear and not regularly enforced.

The increased use of technology at airports and land borders might benefit this border dispute soon. The UK is just trialling biometric border control gates at some airports, and the EU will launch the Schengen Entry-Exit System (EES) around October this year.

Automated systems for expedited border controls will surely reduce waiting times and replace border officials’ checks, letting travellers go through gates without needing to show their passports to human officials.

Negotiations between the EU and the UK on the post-Brexit relationship of Gibraltar with Europe are ongoing, and the latest round has just taken place last week in Brussels. Authorities are discussing an agreement that will guarantee the free circulation of people and goods despite the frontier. The agreement also aims at making Frontex personnel responsible for passport checks at Gibraltar’s airport and at the land border. But as of today, negotiations remain stalled and a solution to the Spain-Gibraltar border management continues to be elusive. 

Read Riskline’s January Travel Outlook here.

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