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Changing the history of Gibraltar-Spain relations

Photo by Johnny Bugeja

by Paco Oliva

On December 31, 2020 the Chief Minister and Spanish Foreign Minister announced the New Year’s Eve political declaration, that was to form the basis of a fully-fledged, enduring EU-UK Treaty governing relations with Gibraltar. We all breathed a sigh of relief and celebrated the extraordinary outcome with our best champagne.

The traumatic Brexit referendum result of 2016 had generated a widespread sensation of impending doom, heightened by the mounting trepidation of successive deadline extensions which felt as nothing but a stay of execution, as we edged closer to the precipice of an apocalyptic hard Brexit, that threatened to obliterate everything we had taken for granted since the frontier reopened in 1982.

We had been just hours away from disaster.

Miraculously Picardo and Laya saved the day, each was able to prioritise the public interest and well-being of their communities above purely domestic considerations. It was an example of enlightened diplomacy and political goodwill to avert a dramatic outcome where Gibraltar would have become the only territory in continental Europe without any type of safety net, plunging into an abyss of unprecedented political uncertainty, financial contraction and social hardship. A dubious distinction indeed.

The prospect of 2-6 hour queues at the frontier becoming the norm would have throttled the economy to the point of asphyxiation. Drastic belt-tightening measures across the public sector, overtime bans, wage cuts, reduced capital spending and redundancies stood out in a long list of miseries and misfortunes that were set to scupper our complacent existence.

The lifeline of the Framework Declaration has promised us a free flowing frontier and the added bonus of a potentially trailblazing trade deal with the hinterland, to deliver an arc of shared prosperity for both sides. Normality. The normality of going about our daily lives, coming in and going out as we please, unhindered, undisturbed, as we have ordinarily been able to do all our adult lives.

It was momentous, it was exciting, it was a second opportunity, as if destiny had given us another possibility to get it right after squandering all previous opportunities in living memory. The underlying message from both was crystal clear: let us look at the future with confidence, a better future for us, for our friends on the other side, our family, our brothers, not least the thousands of health workers, doctors and nurses who at the height of the pandemic kept the GHA ticking away, caring for our sick, caring for our elderly and vulnerable.

Let us not allow ourselves to be trapped indefinitely in the past, in a Ground Hog Day of cross-border tension, acrimony and distrust. There are those who reject the process and prefer to languish in ever consuming circles of resentment but that does not represent the feeling of the overwhelming majority. The first weekend that all COVID restrictions were lifted at the frontier by Spain after a year and a half, 7-8,000 locally registered vehicles crossed over into La Linea.

It was a mass exodus that underscores how our social, economic, recreational, individual lives and daily needs have been profoundly impacted and moulded by four decades of open border.

We are stronger together, symbiosis makes far more sense than confrontation as it can unlock the massive economic potential that lies at our doorstep. The best of Gibraltar and the best of the Campo working in unison is a formidable, inviting project. Seeing the Chief Minister and the Mayor of La Linea in the Nasdaq MarketSite in New York’s Times Square announcing Wisekey, a joint innovation project for satellite technology and cyber security was a thrilling taster of what the future can hold.

I am not a fawning sycophant or GSLP supporter but, by the same token I am not sectarian. I have no difficulty in publicly congratulating Mr Picardo for his achievement, for a consummate act of constructive statecraft that involved shrewd leadership, courage and risk-taking to steer a safe path through a complex minefield of political and emotional sensitivities that have dominated cross-border affairs for generations. That should be a lesson in democracy: a person of a different ideology can do good things for the common interest.

Gibraltar faces a historical dilemma. We either embrace the European Treaty as a springboard that guarantees the Rock’s economic prosperity, legal certainty and sustainability for the next fifty years, or we reject it and instead opt for repositioning our economy away from the current frontier dependent model. Even the most optimistic predictions would not spare us at least a decade of pain and beyond that the invidious prospect of being cut off from mainland Europe and becoming a colony of either China or Morocco, perhaps both.

There is nothing immutable in democratic politics. Sceptics and rational doubters of this Gibraltar-Spain, EU diplomatic breakthrough should take note. Human history is marked by change, adjustment, evolution, forward and backward motion. In 2016 it was unthinkable that the United Kingdom would vote to relinquish their membership of the European Union. In 1977 it was unthinkable that a Spanish Government that consisted of leading figures of General Franco’s Movimiento Nacional would legalise the Partido Comunista de España. In 1989 it was unthinkable that East Germans would pull down the Berlin Wall with hammers and mallets and that German reunification the following year would shape the future of the European Union. In 1989 when FW de Klerk became president of South Africa it was unthinkable that apartheid would be dismantled over the next five years leading to black rule in the country. History is full of such examples.

It is not unthinkable that despite the difficulties, misunderstandings and antagonisms of the past, history can be changed in 2021 and we can have a mature, pragmatic, mutually respectful and beneficial relationship with the Campo area and Spain.

As a close observer of local politics since 1984 I am confident that a treaty that evolves from the NYE framework declaration, that guarantees freedom of movement at the border and a potential trade deal, respects British sovereignty and includes Frontex controls at our entry-exit points, can be a solid foundation that allows us to bounce back from the twin blows of Brexit and COVID 19, toward continued growth and prosperity.
We face an existential crisis that is much bigger than all of us, that is much bigger than party politics, bigger than ideological proclivities, egos and personalities, that is much bigger than the normal day-to-day issues which capture the news headlines on a regular basis.

The political class, the Opposition should reflect on this, because they know better and have intimate knowledge of what is at stake, should not be stirring trouble for a handful of ill-gotten votes. The emotionally laden “Spanish boots on the ground” is an utterly decontextualised manipulative evocation of occupied Europe in World War Two, first by Hitler then by Stalin. A cheap shot to stir up mischief.

They know how much hard work has gone into keeping a semblance of normality in Gibraltar and the frontier flowing freely since 2016, and when they say that nothing has been achieved are playing to the gallery, to the narrow gallery, to the tunnel vision that prefers to ignore the bigger picture for misconceived personal electoral pretensions.

Let us not allow the peddlers of negativity of whatever nationality who barricade themselves behind a vacuous patriotic zeal, the clever ones touting elaborate sophisms and the dumb ones churning out illiterate sludge, to sabotage a golden ticket for hard working families, for entrepreneurs, for the younger generations and ordinary citizens on both sides.

Now when we are dealing with questions of sheer survival, is not the time for irresponsible political point scoring, to try and undermine the government while it is battling hard to secure our future. Let us get through this colossal obstacle first, let us guarantee our economic viability for us and our children and once this has been achieved, by all means let us resume the adversarial jousts, let it be gloves off and continue with the political ‘ajustes de cuenta’ we love so much, in the race for Convent Place. Let us not repeat the mistake of killing politicians at the peak of their powers when they are committed to delivering the best of themselves for the benefit of all.

The moment of truth is upon us. The negotiations for a ground breaking European Treaty to secure our future commenced yesterday. The paradigm shift in relations between Gibraltar and Spain, the chance to change a historical dynamic for all time has never been closer than now. It is within our grasp, let us make sure it stays there.

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