Clear message from May
In her Article 50 letter yesterday, Prime Minister Theresa May did not make a single explicit reference to Gibraltar. People here will be disappointed about that, but they should not be.
After her statement in the House of Commons, the Prime Minister was asked about Gibraltar’s absence from the letter. Was it a case of out of sight, out of mind? Would Gibraltar become a bargaining chip?
Her reply was the strongest message the UK has yet made about its commitment to the Rock.
Mrs May repeated the double-lock commitment and said Britain was “absolutely steadfast” in its support of “Gibraltar, its people and its economy”. She also made “very clear” that Gibraltar was covered by the Brexit negotiations.
These are not words the Prime Minister would use lightly and their importance cannot be understated.
There are difficult months ahead, of that there is no doubt, but Gibraltar should take some comfort in the Prime Minister’s message, particularly given their context.
The content of the Article 50 letter, at least in as far as it related to Gibraltar, had been the subject of "strategic and tactical" discussion between the UK and Gibraltar governments, Chief Minister Fabian Picardo said yesterday. Although it does not mention Gibraltar by name, it contains a discreet reference to the Rock and other Overseas Territories.
In the letter, the Prime Minister wrote that the UK’s aims remained the same as she set out in her January speech at Lancaster House and the subsequent White Paper published on February 2.
The White Paper made clear that Gibraltar “will have particular interests” in the Brexit process. It also set out the UK Government’s commitments to “fully involve” Gibraltar and the OTs in its work, to “…respect their interests and engage with them as we enter negotiations, and strengthen the bonds between us as we forge a new relationship with the EU and look outward into the world.” A White Paper to be published today is also expected to contain references to the Rock.
And there was another important development yesterday, this time from the Spanish parliament.
Responding to a question from PSOE MP Salvador de la Encina, Spain’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs said the impact of Brexit on the Campo de Gibraltar “…will depend on the terms of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.”
Against that context, it said Spain’s priorities were to defend the interests of cross-border workers and Spanish businesses operating in Gibraltar, “…with the objective of avoiding that they should be prejudiced by this process.”
Those priorities – including freedom of movement for cross-border workers - would be negotiated with the UK “within the framework” agreed by the 27 EU members, the response added.
Spain’s Foreign Minister, Alfonso Dastis, has changed the tone of discourse from that of his predecessor and the signals from Madrid are of a desire for constructive solutions to difficult problems.
Both the Gibraltar Government and the Opposition were right yesterday to say that Gibraltar must be cautious in how it approaches the months ahead. While the change of tone in Spain is welcome, Madrid’s underlying position on Gibraltar remains unchanged.
But now that Brexit has been triggered there is everything to fight for, and some room for manoeuvre.