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Brexit crossroads

Next week represents a critical juncture in the Brexit process.

On Tuesday, the House of Commons will vote on Theresa May’s Brexit Withdrawal Agreement. The Prime Minister faces entrenched opposition on both sides of the House and the wide expectation is her deal will be rejected.?If Mrs May’s deal falls, what will happen next is anyone’s guess. For Gibraltar, these are dangerous times indeed.

Chief Minister Fabian Picardo this week urged MPs in the UK to back the deal, which he said was the best option currently on the table both for Gibraltar and the UK.

In so far as it relates to Gibraltar, this was an agreement negotiated by our elected representatives that ensures we are part of arrangements to soften the blow of departure on March 29, 2019.

Likewise, the door to our inclusion in the future arrangements has not been slammed shut in the legal text, whatever political commitments Spain has secured from its EU partners.

For this community, the agreement is not ideal. We would much rather stay in the EU but, as the current state of play stands, we could be worse off. Two years ago, we were facing the prospect of being left out of the soft landing altogether.

This is a two-year transitional deal that provides a Brexit cushion and some breathing space for Gibraltar, as well as a framework for cross-border cooperation on practical matters that impact on daily life for many citizens here and in the Campo de Gibraltar.

The Chief Minister’s very public backing for the Withdrawal Agreement this week, however, drew some criticism at home.

Not everyone is convinced that the deal is good for Gibraltar. Some question whether it hands Spain a role in our affairs, or whether it is, in effect, a deal agreed by the UK and Spain. The Gibraltar Government rejects such claims but for many, the doubts linger.

“Why are we championing an imperfect deal to leave when 96% of us voted to stay?” they ask. “Why not champion the campaign for a second referendum instead?”

On the Opposition bench, the GSD believes Gibraltar should be throwing its weight behind the People’s Vote campaign, and this is a position which many people here are sympathetic to. There is momentum building in the UK for letting voters have another say on Brexit, and Gibraltar’s voice would add significant clout and media exposure.

But as with everything when it comes to Brexit, nothing is simple or straightforward. Not only that, much will depend on what transpires between now and Tuesday, and in the aftermath of the vote itself.

Next week, MPs will decide whether or not to embrace Mrs May’s deal. Right now, that is the only choice on offer: Mrs May’s deal, or no deal. Everything else is speculative. Between now and Tuesday, there are no other alternatives on the table. That is why the Chief Minister is backing the Prime Minister.

In the highly unlikely event that MPs support Mrs May’s deal, the UK and Gibraltar will leave the EU at the end of March next year on the terms set out in the withdrawal agreement, whatever one may think of it.

But what happens if the deal is rejected? Such a scenario opens up a range of possibilities, but none of them offer any degree of predictability or certainty. The UK Parliament is split and there is no consensus on any of the possible permutations of how things might evolve. The landscape is fractured and riddled with partisan interests. For Gibraltar, all of the possibilities present very real risks.

Say, for example, that parliament takes control of the deal and heads back to Brussels to try and renegotiate the thorny issue of the Northern Ireland backstop, the biggest stumbling block.

The EU has said it will not reopen the legal text, yet the unpredictable political rollercoaster of the past two years has shown us anything is possible when it comes to Brexit.

But reopening the text would be a potential minefield for Gibraltar. Spain would not ignore an opportunity to strengthen its hand. Madrid would seek to cement into the legal treaty the political promises on Gibraltar it received from its EU partners.

The move for a second referendum is also riddled with dangers for Gibraltar, not least because the UK is still split between the Remain and Leave camps. At a basic level, a second referendum could deliver the same result, except the prospect of a hard Brexit would be much more likely.

But there is another potential pitfall too, arising from timing.

A referendum is a complex affair to organise and there is not sufficient time for a vote between now and the end of March. A second referendum, in other words, would first require an extension of the Article 50 deadline.

But such an extension could only be approved with the unanimity of the EU 27, which means Spain has to agree. That, once again, would open up the potential for Madrid to attempt to exert pressure over Gibraltar.

To add to the mix, another critical development has emerged over the past few days.

On Monday, the European Court of Justice will deliver a formal ruling as to whether or not the UK can unilaterally revoke Article 50 and stop Brexit altogether. The court’s advocate general has advised that it is possible. If the judges confirm that advice, then another escape route from Brexit will open up.

The Chief Minister insisted this week that between now and Tuesday, the best outcome for Gibraltar is that UK MPs back Mrs May’s deal which, despite its imperfections, at least offers a roadmap of sorts for the next two years, as well as respite before the tough negotiations on the future trade deal.

There are dissenting voices as to whether or not that is the best tactic for Gibraltar, not least because the Prime Minister and her government may not survive the fallout of a rejected deal. Gibraltar could be left dealing with the MPs it had tried unsuccessfully to convince just days earlier.

But having pursued the strategy of working closely with the UK Government over the past two years, ensuring Gibraltar’s voice was heard and properly reflected and securing vital commitments on UK market access, one can perhaps understand Mr Picardo’s final, public push of support for Mrs May at this critical time.

If the deal falls through on Tuesday and other options open up, however, our government must consider whether it is time to change tack, something Mr Picardo himself hinted at in a GBC interview on Thursday.

At that point, having supported Mrs May in her difficult task - and in so doing, ensured the UK’s support for us - it may be time for Gibraltar to join the growing chorus of voices clamouring for the UK to put an end to this Brexit madness once and for all.

Quite how we do that, though, depends on what happens on Tuesday.

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