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Gibraltar’s Brexit tightrope

File photo dated 24/03/18 of demonstrators at a Brexit protest march in Edinburgh, as a petition calling on the Government to halt the Brexit process has passed six million signatures. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Sunday March 31, 2019. The Revoke Article 50 petition, due to be debated by MPs on Monday, is the best-supported proposal in the history of the House of Commons and Government's e-petitions website. See PA story POLITICS Brexit Petition. Photo credit should read: Jane Barlow/PA Wire

Despite the tiresome prospect of another six months of Brexit uncertainty, we are far better off now than we were a month ago.

Back then, it was Theresa May’s deal or no deal. Now, the UK Parliament has made clear that it will not countenance a hard Brexit. Instead of a binary choice, the PM’s deal or hard Brexit, we have a range of possible outcomes including, however remote, the cancellation of Brexit altogether.

For a time, Chief Minister Fabian Picardo was among the most vocal supporters of Mrs May’s Withdrawal Agreement, a stance for which he was sternly criticised by some.

But it was, as he has argued repeatedly, the only possible position Gibraltar could have taken if it wished to leave the EU alongside the UK with all the protections of the Withdrawal Agreement. That changed when the House of Commons rejected Mrs May’s deal and opened up the possibility of alternative options. It was time to adapt Gibraltar’s strategy in response.

As Mr Picardo argued in Parliament on Thursday, if the UK and Gibraltar must ultimately leave the EU, the Withdrawal Agreement still presents the best means of doing that in a managed fashion.

But with MPs debating other permutations of the deal and the possibility of a second referendum, there was space once again for Gibraltar to make the case for remaining in the EU. The Chief Minister’s rousing speech to the People’s Vote rally in London this week may not have been to everyone’s taste, but there was logic to it.

Some observers have bemoaned the government’s “U-turns” on Brexit, but that is to miss the point: In Brexitland, the parameters are constantly shifting.

For Gibraltar, international politics has always involved walking a very delicate tightrope. It is about protecting the long-term interests of this community while ensuring the best possible relations with the UK, often in the face of very difficult challenges, and seeing off political threats from Spain while at the same time trying to foster cross-border cooperation.

The 2016 Brexit referendum greased that tightrope and loosened it at either end, turning an already-tricky balancing act into an acrobatic performance on a slippery, toxic, fractured political landscape not of our making.

After two years of arguing, the House of Commons still has no clear position around which a majority of MPs can rally. Neither is there a route map to get to such a position. In that context, Gibraltar’s challenge is to remain agile and cover all the bases, responding with confidence to opportunities and threats alike.

We have supported the Withdrawal Agreement and protected our position, even while maintaining that remaining in the EU is the best option for us. We have also argued for revocation and a second referendum, even while accepting that if we must leave, then we must do so with a deal, and Theresa May’s is currently the only one on the table.

In the meantime, we have also invested time and money on preparing for a hard exit.

And even if all that effort is ultimately for nothing – one can but hope – it will help us to identify areas of future risk for this community, helping us to adapt and become leaner, more efficient.

And we now have time. The extension granted by the EU this week allows space for the UK to take stock, analyse, calm tempers, moderate language and positions, find consensus and a way forward. And if that fails, a second referendum or perhaps even a general election could resolve the impasse.

And if we are asked to vote in the EU election in May as seems likely, we should embrace that as an opportunity to send a clear message, not of anger at the way the EU has treated this community over the past two years, but of our continued belief that, despite it all, we are still better off inside than out. We must vote with our heads, not our emotions.

Nigel Farage and the Brexit headbangers are relishing the prospect of sending Brexiteer MEPs into the European Parliament on a wrecking mission. Let us deny them that opportunity.
For the next six months, Gibraltar’s Brexit team will continue walking the treacherous tightrope.

Our civil servants will continue planning for a hard Brexit, silently hoping that all their efforts and hard work will ultimately be for nothing. The private sector will plan too as best it can, given the lack of clarity as to what will happen in the end. What else can it do?

And the rest of us? The best advice is probably to park Brexit to one side. The warmer weather will help, as will Gibraltar’s busy social, cultural and sporting calendar. The extension granted this week is like a lungful of fresh air after weeks breathing the stale atmosphere of Brexit and Westminster politics.

As we regroup and take stock, the extension will also allow for attention on domestic issues that may have been overshadowed by Brexit over the past year.

It will have escaped no one in this community that spring has brought with it a sense of disgruntlement and unease that is unusual at this time of the year. Perhaps we are collectively letting off steam after months of Brexit concern building up like a pressure cooker. There is probably an element of pre-budget, pre-election wish-making in there too.

But while it is incumbent on everyone in this community to understand that Brexit has imposed onerous demands on the government machinery at every level, the political turmoil of the past two years cannot deflect from the need to tackle the bread-and-butter issues that concern this community.

MAIN PHOTO: Jane Barlow/PA Wire