Ever since the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union nearly two years ago, the Prime Minister Theresa May has been clear that while we are leaving the EU, we are not leaving Europe. As long-time allies who enjoy close cultural, economic and security ties, we share with our neighbours on the continent not only shared experiences of the past and similar challenges in the present – but a whole range of opportunities together in the future as well.
In order to seize these new opportunities and minimise the risks however, we must forge a consensus that sees us work together in a new era of co-operation and shared prosperity between the United Kingdom and our European partners – such as Spain. That is why I am in Madrid today: to focus on the deep bilateral relationship between the UK and Spain; to celebrate and champion our people-to-people links; and to make clear our wish to strengthen this relationship further after the UK has left the EU.
I understand that many people in Spain do not wish to see the UK leave the EU, an organisation we know they value dearly. But while I campaigned hard to remain in the EU, I recognise that the people in the UK took a democratic decision to leave and that vote must be respected: there will be no second referendum on our membership. Instead, the priority now is for both sides to focus our energies on agreeing a future relationship that recognises the common bonds and ties that we have built up over decades.
We have already made significant progress in negotiations so far, with both sides determined to prioritise the needs of both of our peoples. At the end of last year, we agreed key elements of our withdrawal, such as ensuring that the 300,000 British people living in Spain – and the almost 200,000 Spanish citizens in the UK – retain the right to live and work in each other’s country as they do now. And in March, we reached agreement on an implementation period, giving families and businesses the certainty and clarity they deserve.
The path ahead, however, is not a simple one: we are approaching some crucial moments in our negotiations. But where there are challenges to overcome, we are confident that, by adopting a spirit of compromise and focus, we can find a way forward together that is to the benefit and shared prosperity of both ourselves and the European Union.
For instance, we are clear that any deal with the EU must honour the agreements that were reached in the historic Northern Ireland peace process. As the minister responsible for safeguarding the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom, I have seen first-hand the importance of ensuring there can be no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, and upholding the Belfast agreement in full which underpins peace and stability in the region. And we have also been clear that we will negotiate as one family – meaning no customs barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
We face another complex set of implications relating to Gibraltar’s departure from the EU, alongside the UK. The benefits of the interconnectedness of the Campo de Gibraltar and the Rock are demonstrated each day, as thousands of Spaniards, Brits and citizens across the EU complete their daily commute. The number of livelihoods this supports underlines the importance of preserving these links long into the future.
That is why we have been engaging regularly with the Government of Gibraltar and our European partners, including Spain, to provide the certainty required by people and businesses on either side. Given our clear and longstanding differences with Spain on sovereignty, our task will not always be straightforward. But while the UK position is, and will remain, resolute, we are confident that a constructive spirit and focus on our very real shared interests will enable us to find a mutually agreeable resolution that benefits everyone living and working in the region.
We also want to be ambitious about the future relationship with the EU we are seeking: the broadest and deepest possible economic partnership that will protect jobs and boost prosperity for citizens on both sides. Leaving the single market will bring changes for businesses in both the UK, Spain and beyond, but I am confident that we can maintain the strongest possible trading partnership with our European neighbours. And not only will this benefit the UK, but our appetite for cars produced in Aragon, fresh produce from Andalusia and a crisp Albarino from Galicia will keep creating jobs in Spain too.
And recent events underline the need for the strongest possible security partnership too. Shared threats such as terrorism, organised crime and nuclear proliferation no longer recognise borders, which is why co-operation and information-sharing through measures such as the Europol and the European Arrest Warrant is instrumental in our joint efforts to fight cross-border crime and terrorism. And the united message last week from the UK and European partners – including Spain – on the importance of the Iran deal exemplifies our shared values and underlines why we must safeguard the practical co-operation we have developed over decades in order to keep our citizens safe.
There are many challenges ahead but with goodwill, creativity and focus on all sides – and by putting our people and shared prosperity at the centre – I am convinced that these challenges can and will be overcome. The UK and Spain are friends and allies with a long history together; strengthening those links and tightening those bonds even further is now our shared aspiration for the future.