With just a year to go to Brexit, a fractured political landscape is littered with challenges and risks – but opportunities too.
In Cubist artwork, a familiar object is analysed in close detail before being broken up and reassembled in abstracted form that might, at first blush, appear unrecognisable. Instead of depicting a model or a still life from a single viewpoint, the Cubist artist portrays the subject simultaneously from a range of different angles, offering deeper, greater context to the viewer. An everyday object is thus transformed.
I was reminded of these principles while trying to unpick some of the latest developments in the Brexit saga as they relate to Gibraltar.
Take as a first vantage point the recent meeting in Seville between Chief Minister Fabian Picardo and Susana Díaz, the PSOE president of the Junta de Andalucia. The first and most important take-away from that meeting is this: Mrs Díaz cleared it first with the Ministry for Foreign Affairs in Madrid. That speaks volumes for the changing mind-set in the Palacio de Santa Cruz.
But what do Gibraltar and the Junta have to talk about? Well, quite a lot as it goes, although with some caveats. The Junta, for example, is keen to stress that it bows to Spain’s central government on any sovereignty-related issue. But it is quick to add too that in areas where it can, it will talk to Gibraltar and engage on practical issues for mutual gain. There are joint commercial initiatives that could be explored, work to be done on tourism and environmental projects, perhaps even in healthcare. Against the backdrop of Brexit, engaging in constructive dialogue with the authorities that run Andalucia, the region that neighbours Gibraltar, can only be a good thing.
You would think such conversations would be normal given the geographical proximity, but that has never been the case. In the past, any suggestion of dialogue between Gibraltar and the Junta has fallen foul of the prism through which Gibraltar’s relations with Spain have always been viewed. As soon as we start to talk about lateralisms - bilateral dialogue, trilateral dialogue, quadrilateral ad hoc dialogue - problems arise. Each formula raises objections from one or more of the parties, and sooner or later the whole thing runs aground. Instead of progress, we get stalemate.
That is why the meeting in Seville was so significant. Here was a conversation outside of the usual prism of lateralisms, a conversation between two parties on issues where each could, potentially at least, take practical decisions. These are baby steps, admittedly, but the sentiment on both sides was constructive and the hope was of productive dialogue.
And there are other such political discussions taking place.
Gibraltar, through its constitutional relationship with the UK and a Joint Ministerial Council set up specifically for this purpose, is discussing Brexit closely with the UK Government, and has been for months. We have already seen the early fruits of those discussions, in the form of agreements on UK market access for Gibraltar companies.
The UK Government, as the EU member leaving the club, is in turn discussing Brexit with the EU itself, and bilaterally with individual member states including Spain. Whenever Gibraltar has been raised in those bilateral conversations – bilateral, it is important to remember, within the context of the UK’s membership of the EU and its forthcoming departure – the Gibraltar Government has been intimately involved in preparing the UK position ahead of the talks.
Unlikely as it might sound, we should not rule out direct discussion between Gibraltar and the central Spanish Government on Brexit-related matters. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy himself hinted at this last week during a press conference after the EU Council approved a deal for Britain’s transition to Brexit. Mr Rajoy referred to conversations “with Gibraltar”, rather than ‘about’ Gibraltar. According to one Spanish website, such contact has already been initiated, although no one has confirmed – or denied - this formally. Madrid’s change of tone on Gibraltar is clear though, driven no doubt by keen awareness of the bigger issues raised by Brexit and by other factors too, including the UK’s support for Madrid on the issue of Catalonia, and the deep economic links between the two countries.
In Spain meanwhile, the Junta is discussing the impact of Brexit closely with the central government in Madrid, as well as the municipalities of the Campo de Gibraltar. The Campo mayors are themselves talking to Madrid and, as was evidenced by the latest in a series of meetings between La Linea mayor Juan Franco and the Chief Minister, with Gibraltar too, part of the Gibraltar Government’s regular contacts with Spanish politicians across the political spectrum. Mr Franco, while acknowledging the limited scope of his competencies as mayor, has not shied away either from taking his Brexit message in person to Brussels.
These are interlaced, overlapping, often conflicting and dynamic conversations riddled with partisan interests fighting for space. Much can, and will, go wrong. And while one can accept that officials require discretion in order to progress with sensitive discussions, one can also understand calls for increased transparency wherever possible. Ultimately though, if one accepts that Brexit has created a new reality, then Gibraltar must be ready to sit down with whoever it has to in order to carve out its position with maturity and savvy in this shifting landscape.
The baseline concern for Gibraltar in this context is obvious, as the GSD has flagged several times in recent weeks and the Gibraltar Government is clearly alive to. The fear is that if Gibraltar is discussed by the UK and Spain in the absence of a Gibraltarian voice at the table, something may be agreed that is contrary to the interests of this community. It is a valid position rooted in painful lessons learnt in the not-so-distant past. Think the 2002 joint sovereignty proposal. The default setting for any Gibraltarian must be wariness, not just of the Spanish Government, but of the UK too.
But for the UK and Spain to discuss Gibraltar during a bilateral meeting on Brexit issues is not the same as a bilateral meeting to discuss Gibraltar, more-so when Gibraltar’s representatives have been fully involved in the preparation and debriefing of those meetings. The word bilateral, loaded as it is for any Gibraltarian, must be used with care in the context of Brexit and EU relations. These are not toxic, Brussels Agreement-style bilateral conversations of the sort that everyone in Gibraltar is opposed to.
And if, as Mr Rajoy suggested last week, the Partido Popular is ready to engage with Gibraltar directly, then yet another dimension emerges in this complicated landscape. “The mistrust the Gibraltarian has of the Spanish Government in Madrid is underpinned by their failure to want to engage directly with us,” one senior official told me. “Breaking that duck is an important first step in building trust, if that truly matters to institutional Spain.” Spain, in other words, could continue banging the nationalist drum for another 300 years and end up nowhere. Or it could finally acknowledge Gibraltar’s reality, talk to us and, in so doing, unlock potential for social and economic growth on both sides of the border. We must be ready to tackle both scenarios.
It is important to underscore here that Gibraltar’s relationship with the UK Government, protected by the double-lock sovereignty commitment, has never been closer. We enjoy too cross-party support in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and we have received firm commitments from the Prime Minister and her cabinet that the UK will stand by Gibraltar as it leaves the EU.
The UK’s promises to date do not go far enough for many in this community. The political commitment to maintain access to the UK market must be sealed in law. Likewise the UK must provide cast-iron assurances that it will include Gibraltar in the transition period and any final Brexit deal - if ultimately that is what Gibraltar wants.
The value or otherwise of those commitments, however, must be measured not only by how far they fall short of the solid reassurances we need, but also how far they go to that end, particularly given the political upheaval and uncertainty in the UK itself. While the UK can and must go further, we must also acknowledge what has been gained so far.
The risks will always be there, as will Gibraltar’s constant state of alertness to them. Barrister David Hughes, writing in this newspaper, issued a warning that would have resonated with many in this community: Don’t, he said, rule out the possibility that the UK might sell Gibraltar out somewhere down the road. Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security. Hope for the best, he added, but plan for the worst.
He was right, of course, but we all know what our red lines are. As a community, we will not allow these to be crossed.
But consider this. Brexit, just as Cubism did with the ordinary, has deconstructed the traditional political dynamic in Europe, turning it into something at once recognisable, yet similarly abstract. In that flux and shift lies challenge and risk, but also opportunity.
It has been said by old-school Spanish politicians like José Manuel García-Margallo, Spain’s former Minister for Foreign Affairs, that Brexit represents Spain’s best chance in 300 years to recover the sovereignty of Gibraltar. Deep down though, I suspect even Margallo knows this is wishful thinking.
But with imagination and goodwill, and keeping the interests of communities on both sides of the border at heart, it might be possible to move away from past lateralisms into a multi-faceted relationship where everyone’s red lines are respected and solutions to practical problems can be found.
If that doesn’t work, there will be time enough to hunker down and raise the drawbridge, although that would be a bleak prospect best avoided.
Main photo by John Piris