Azopardi says ‘treaty can be reached’ and his team can deliver
A GSD government would not “turn back the clock” on treaty negotiations despite “serious misgivings” about aspects of the process to date, party leader Keith Azopardi said on Wednesday, insisting “an agreement can be reached”.
Mr Azopardi was speaking during a press conference in which he also announced that a GSD administration would continue to attend the UN to champion self-determination and would invite the Leader of the Opposition to present a joint front in New York.
Flanked by GSD candidates Damon Bossino, Roy Clinton and Daniella Tilbury, Mr Azopardi said his team had ample experience and expertise to continue the treaty talks if elected, dismissing as “nonsense” GSLP/Liberal claims that the party would be soft on Spain.
Asked if he believed a deal was possible, Mr Azopardi said: “I think an agreement can be reached.”
“I think an agreement can be reached because I take at face value the mood music that is out there.”
“I know it's a very difficult, complex issue, and with open eyes I don't underestimate how difficult and how complex it will be.”
“But I do think that the political climate is for a possible, safe and beneficial agreement.”
The GSLP/Liberals have made the Brexit negotiation a central theme of their campaign, insisting that now is not the time to change the team that has been dealing with Brexit since 2016, first securing access to the UK market for services, then ensuring transition arrangements were extended to Gibraltar after withdrawal, and now negotiating a UK/EU treaty to guarantee post-Brexit fluidity at the border.
But the GSD insists it is up to the job, a message that was hammered home repeatedly on Wednesday.
Experience aside, Mr Azopardi rejected any suggestion that the GSD was at a disadvantage given the political relationships and contacts built by caretaker Chief Minister Fabian Picardo and his deputy Dr Joseph Garcia over many years of Brexit negotiations.
He noted a recent interview in El Pais in which Mr Picardo had said the thorny political issues in the talks had largely been resolved and that what was needed now was “less politicians and more lawyers” to complete highly technical, highly legal work.
“Surely that’s an argument that washes away any possible fear that people may have that this [negotiation] is built on political relationships that we don’t have and they do, and that we’re not going to inherit,” Mr Azopardi said.
He stressed several times too that a GSD administration would still be able to rely on the civil servants and government officials, both here and in the UK, who had been involved in the negotiations, and that he was confident Mr Picardo would offer every assistance possible in the interests of Gibraltar should he lose the election.
Mr Azopardi underlined his own experience both as a lawyer and on international issues during his time as GSD minister, including the joint sovereignty episode and the negotiation on constitutional reform leading to the 2006 Constitution.
“I believe that if the GSD is elected to government, we have the competence to deal with those issues. I do this all the time for a living,” he said.
“People drop me into very complex issues and load me with documents to read overnight. I do this all the time. This doesn't faze me, it doesn't worry me.”
“It's up to the people of Gibraltar what they do on the 12th of October. But this issue is not an issue in front of them or a hurdle as to why we shouldn't be elected.”
Mr Azopardi played down too the fact that his party had levelled deep criticism at the GSLP/Liberals over their handling of Brexit, but would now have to take over if they won.
The GSD, for example, had previously raised “very serious misgivings” about aspects of the New Year’s Eve framework agreement that underpins the treaty negotiation, describing it as “flimsy”.
Despite those criticisms, Mr Azopardi recognised that his party would not seek to undo the work to date.
“If we're elected on the 13th October, I acknowledge we're not turning back the clock,” he said.
“We're going to work with what we inherit and therefore we are going to take that work forward.”
“It would be entirely unrealistic, and indeed, that is not our aspiration, to rewrite the New Year's Eve agreement.”
“What we are going to take forward is the work that has been done under it.”
That position extended to the controversial Gibraltar/Spain tax treaty too, despite the GSD’s view that the agreement was “an intrusive, negative” arrangement for Gibraltar.
The GSD, he said, would not seek to scrap the tax treaty if elected, at least “for now”.
“And I say for now because I'm also conscious that the more important issue for us is to land a safe and beneficial agreement, and I recognise that it may be part of the mix,” he added.
“Would we have done that deal if we had been negotiating? The answer is no.”
“But we're going to inherit the New Year's Eve agreement that we don't like, we are going to inherit the tax treaty that we don't like.”
“But we are looking at the bigger prize of the safe and beneficial agreement.”
“We will reserve our position on all these issues until such time as we progress those talks, hopefully so as to land a safe and beneficial agreement.”
The GSD leader was critical of what he described as “fundamentally inconsistent messages” on the treaty from the GSLP/Liberals.
That was a reference to statements by Sir Joe Bossano in Parliament earlier this year in which he said the most Gibraltar could hope for was a deal for four years, during which Frontex would handle any Schengen immigration checks.
“Are they standing for election on the basis that they are saying to the people of Gibraltar they want to deliver a permanent agreement, or are they standing for election on the basis that they are saying that it is not possible to reach a final permanent agreement with the EU and that all they can achieve is four years, which is what Sir Joe Bossano says?” he told reporters.
“They need to be clear with the people of Gibraltar what they are offering on this issue. This confusion there is needs to be dispelled.”
Mr Azopardi said that on fundamental issues such as Spanish presence inside Gibraltar, the GSD would adopt a firm line.
“The issue for us in Gibraltar is not that we are going to enter into an arrangement between the UK and the EU for Gibraltar, or indeed that certain functions would understandably be coordinated from the adjoining member states,” Mr Azopardi said.
“The issue is whether there are then boots on the ground, to use colloquial language. That is the issue in Gibraltar.”
For the GSD, “…it would be unacceptable that there should be Spanish boots on the ground in Gibraltar.”
And while the devil would be in the fine detail of any treaty, he added: “I cannot envisage a scenario where it would be acceptable. It's as simple as that.”
Mr Azopardi put great emphasis too on rejecting assertions from the Alliance that his previous academic writings on Andorra would be seen as a weakness at the negotiating table.
Mr Azopardi has repeatedly stated that he does not advocate an Andorra-style solution for Gibraltar, but the GSLP/Liberals continue to press on the issue.
“People know what I stand for. I've been in politics for 30 years,” he said.
“People know that they can trust me to deliver and protect Gibraltar as I have before when I have been in office.”
“People know that the GSD will not give an inch to Spain on issues of sovereignty, jurisdiction and control.”
“People know that the GSD has protected Gibraltar before and it will protect Gibraltar again if the people of Gibraltar entrust us with the privilege of leading this community.”
“I have a very clear message on that issue: the nonsense that is being said on the issue of Andorra, and the misinterpretation of everything that I have said before, is complete mischief making and lies.”
The GSD leader said the party would also continue to prepare for a no deal scenario should talks fail, adding: “We will pick up on the work that has been done before.”
Mr Azopardi said the GSD if elected would be present at the United Nations to “advocate strongly” for the international recognition of the rights of the people of Gibraltar.
“We will attend the United Nations, both the Fourth Committee and the UN Committee of 24, to make that case for Gibraltar,” he said.
“Not only will we attend, we will invite the Leader of the Opposition to join us in a united delegation to represent Gibraltar.”
“I would hope that that invitation, if the GSD is elected to government, that invitation that will be tendered for the first time since the 1960s to a Leader of the Opposition would be accepted.”
“I would hope that a leader of the opposition of the GSLP/Liberals would not be churlish enough to wish not to present a united front at the United Nations.”
Mr Azopardi also spoke of the need for constitutional reform and said the GSD’s aim would be to ensure additional checks and balances on government were reflected in this core piece of legislation.
He said a GSD government would commit to engaging with the UK Government on a process of constitutional reform.
“We recognise now that the Constitution that we obtained in 2006, which was a great advancement then, now needs further change,” he said.
“It needs further change on a number of issues.”
“Not least it needs an injection of further checks and balances on the power of government.”
“I've said before that the GSD intends to be a radicalising government that will, for the first time in history, take measures to lose power, to create greater accountability as its legacy, to ensure that the government, the GSD government, and indeed future governments, face further entrenched checks and balances.”
“Because that delivers better government and better quality of decision making. It's as simple as that.”