Gibraltar ‘must not be a bargaining tool’ in Brexit talks, peers warn
The future sovereignty of Gibraltar must not become a “bargaining tool” in the upcoming Brexit negotiations, the UK Government has been warned.
The UK must be alert to any move by Spain to advance claims over the Rock as part of divorce talks with Brussels, peers have insisted.
Following the House of Lords debate, the Gibraltar Government warmly welcomed the “chorus of support for Gibraltar” from peers on the Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and the Cross benches.
There were also calls during the debate for the border between Gibraltar and Spain to be “as free flowing as possible” following the UK’s departure from the EU, given the economic importance of the frontier.
Peers were discussing a report by the Lords EU Committee which argued that Britain had a “moral duty” to ensure that Gibraltar’s voice is heard in the Brexit talks.
The committee warned that with 40% of Gibraltar’s workforce crossing over the border from Spain every day, withdrawal from the single market would have significant implications.
The fact Gibraltar voted 95.9% to remain in the EU places a special responsibility on London to protect its interests during the Article 50 withdrawal talks, peers said.
Opening the debate, committee Chairman Lord Boswell Aynho said that in these circumstances the United Kingdom has a “unique moral responsibility” to ensure that Gibraltar does not suffer as a result of a Brexit that its people almost unanimously opposed.
With regards to Gibraltar’s sovereignty he told peers this was one key issue where “no compromise is possible.”
“The Government has made a commitment never to enter into sovereignty discussions against the will of the Gibraltarian people.”
“The United Kingdom government needs to be alert to any attempts by Spain to advance territorial claims over Gibraltar.”
“Our view is that the United Kingdom Government has a unique moral responsibility to ensure that Gibraltar’s voice is heard and its interests respected as we approach Brexit and beyond.”
Chief minister Fabian Picardo and Deputy Chief Minister Dr Joseph Garcia looked on from the diplomatic gallery in the House of Lords as peers debated the issue.
Tory peer Lord Selkirk of Douglas said after the Brexit the UK would have two land borders with the EU, one between Northern Ireland and the Republic and the other between Gibraltar and Spain.
Given the thousands who used the border each day, he said: “I strongly support this report’s call for the maintenance of a frontier between Gibraltar and Spain which is as free flowing as possible following Brexit.”
He added: “I believe that Britain’s negotiators must also be vigilant over any attempts by Spain to try and use the constitutional future of Gibraltar and the issue of sovereignty as a bargaining tool.”
The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Rev Nick Baines, wanted assurances that the Government was “stress-testing” all the scenarios that could use Gibraltar, including Spain using sovereignty or cross border access, as a “bargaining chip”.
He said: “If you look through the eyes of Spain, you find that it is not good enough for us simply to say, “We mustn’t compromise on sovereignty”.
“What if the Spanish hold out sovereignty, play a long game and say, “We’ll just sit this out. We won’t give equivalence?”
“What if the EU does not give us equivalent status? What if Spain wants to use sovereignty or cross-border access and frontier issues as a bargaining chip?”
“We cannot simply stand there and say, “Well, you can’t”. I want to know that we are stress-testing this. Who has the power? After all, we have spoken of having a clean Brexit; what if the Spanish take us at our word? That has to be thought through and our response to it considered.”
Labour peer Lord Hoyle, a freeman of Gibraltar, said: “The people of Gibraltar have always been good friends of this country…we must not let them down in our negotiations in relation to Brexit.”
Stressing the strategic importance of Gibraltar, Lord West of Spithead said: “In purely military terms, Gibraltar and its brave resolute people are important to the security and stability of our nations and Nato in this very dangerous world.”
Retired judge and independent crossbencher Baroness Butler-Sloss said: “It’s abundantly clear that during the Brexit negotiations and post-Brexit we must publicly and effectively support Gibraltar in all the necessary situations which may arise, including continuing threats from Spain.”
“The Government has promised again and again to do so and it must carry out its promise.”
Responding to the debate, Baroness Goldie said the Government recognised the economic importance of a “well-functioning” border between Gibraltar and Spain, and committed to work with both administrations to ensure this continued post-Brexit.
On the issue of sovereignty, she said: “We will continue to stand beside Gibraltar and its people.”
“The Government are confident that if we approach these upcoming negotiations in a spirit of good will, we can deliver a positive outcome that works for all, including Gibraltar,” she added.
Reacting to the debate yesterday the Gibraltar Government flagged the “strong backing” for the Rock from former Governor Lord Luce and long-time supporters Labour Peer Lord Hoyle and Liberal Democrat Peer Lord Chidgey, but also highlighted contributions from the ‘new voices’.
“In her response for the Government, Baroness Goldie reaffirmed that the economic bonds between the United Kingdom and Gibraltar would be strengthened and maintained after exit from the European Union,” the Government said.
The Government said it is very grateful to the Chairman and Members of the House of Lords Committee and to the Peers who backed Gibraltar in the debate.
Mr Picardo, said: “The session in the House of Lords last night was deeply important for Gibraltar. Lord Boswell's committee has done a huge service in the timely preparation of their report on 'Brexit: Gibraltar'.”
“To have, additionally, secured a debate on that report a week before the formal Article 50 Notice is given, I think, is hugely beneficial to Gibraltar and has been enormously helpful in demonstrating the depth of support that Gibraltar now enjoys from all sides of the House, including the central, Crossbench, Peers who have demonstrated they care about our rights in this process.”
“I am also very grateful for the response of Her Majesty's Government, which has been unequivocal. I think this has been the first time a Chief Minister and his team has been invited to attend and sit below the bar in the House of Lords and I am very proud for all of Gibraltar that this has been the case.”
“I am very grateful indeed to all of their Lordships who supported Gibraltar in the report of the Brexit Select Committee and who last night orchestrated a chorus of support for Gibraltar and its people in this important and timely debate.”
“It is at times of challenge that friendships are forged, and we can see our long-term friends continuing staunch in our support and new friends also flocking to Gibraltar's cause, which are silver linings in these times.”