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GSD ‘flip-flopping’ on treaty would leave Gibraltar ‘negotiating on quicksand’

The GSLP/Liberals on Thursday said the GSD had “flip-flopped” on its position on the Brexit treaty talks, insisting this demonstrated the party was not up to the task of continuing the negotiation if elected to government on October 12.

The Alliance was reacting after the GSD said it would not “turn back the clock” on treaty negotiations despite having expressed “serious misgivings” about aspects of the process to date.

On one level, the Alliance said the GSD was echoing much of the GSLP/Liberals’ message over recent years about how each stage of the process was interlinked and dependent on the other.

But in a press conference, GSLP leader Fabian Picardo and Liberal Party leader Dr Joseph Garcia said it also showed the GSD changing its position on fundamental issues that underly the negotiation.

“They have no serious position on the negotiation and therefore that demonstrates how dangerous they are,” Mr Picardo said.

“First, for Gibraltar, because you won’t know what their position is. Clearly, you won't know that they have a position that you can rely on.”

“And second, in the context of the negotiation itself…if the people who go and sit at the table are not as clear and certain on all of the issues in the negotiation as Joseph and I and the rest of the Gibraltar negotiating team have been, and they are flip flopping on issues, what's going to happen is that the people sitting opposite you negotiating for the European Union and Spain will know that, with a little bit of pressure, the Gibraltar side led by Keith Azopardi will buckle and change.”

“That is what we have seen in the context of just the last eight weeks, in the way that the GSD have put their arguments.”

“We have countered their arguments and they have changed their arguments.”

Mr Picardo cited for example the GSD’s position on the New Year’s Eve framework agreement that underpins the ongoing treaty talks and which GSD leader Mr Azopardi had expressed concerns about and described as “flimsy”.

The GSLP/Liberals had previously said the GSD would not be able to go into a negotiation that was based on an agreement it rejected.

“So what has Keith done? Steady as ever, firm as ever, he’s flip-flopped on the issue and he's now accepted that he has to go forward with the New Year's Eve agreement,” Mr Picardo said.

He referred too to the tax treaty for Gibraltar and Spain, which the GSD had previously described as harmful and intrusive, but which Mr Azopardi earlier this week said would not be scrapped by the GSD if elected, at least “for now”.

Mr Azopardi said that despite his misgivings, he was conscious that the “more important issue” was to seal a safe and beneficial UK/EU agreement and that the tax treaty “may be part of the mix”.

“Would we have done that deal if we had been negotiating? The answer is no,” Mr Azopardi had told reporters.

“But we're going to inherit the New Year's Eve agreement that we don't like, we are going to inherit the tax treaty that we don't like.”

“But we are looking at the bigger prize of the safe and beneficial agreement.”

Mr Picardo said that each stage of the Brexit process since 2016 was closely interlinked and that the tax treaty had allowed Gibraltar to be covered by the transition period after withdrawal, and now formed the basis of any aspect of the ongoing negotiation that touched on taxation.

He said Mr Azopardi’s position was “worse than flip flopping”.

“This is like making arguments on quicksand,” Mr Picardo told reporters.

“We, the people of Gibraltar, make arguments like rock. Our arguments have to be like rock, not like quicksand.”

“Because the slightest show that we are making points about which we are not deadly serious, where we will flip flop, change our minds or be weak in the defence of, our opponents on the negotiating table have many, many, many arrows in their bow ready to sling at us.”

“We are a small nation. The only thing we have in this negotiation is our determination and our clarity and our steadfastness on the fundamentals.”

“And with Keith Azopardi in the negotiating seat, everybody else around the negotiating table can see how he has changed his arguments on key fundamental issues, key fundamental issues, on which he says one thing one day and the opposite another.”

“And this is really something that makes it impossible to see him as a reliable interlocutor for Gibraltar, a reliable negotiator for Gibraltar that has the firmness and the spine to stand up to those who are making opposite arguments across the table.”

Mr Azopardi stressed this week that the GSD team had the experience and expertise to handle the negotiation if elected, dismissing Alliance suggestions that his party would be soft on Spain.

As a senior barrister, Mr Azopardi said he was well accustomed to dealing with hugely complex legal matters, adding: “I do this all the time for a living.”

He referred too to comments by Mr Picardo in a recent interview with El Pais newspaper, in which he said what was needed now was “less politicians and more lawyers” in order to complete the technical legal work that remained.

That statement, Mr Azopardi said, “washes away any possible fear that people may have that this [negotiation] is built on political relationships that we don’t have and they do”, adding that the GSD would have the support of officials here and in the UK who had been engaged in the process throughout.

But Mr Picardo countered that while there was still a lot of technical work to be done, there was a crucial political dimension too.

“I didn't say no politicians, I said less politicians,” he told reporters.

“Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, and however much work the technicians do, in the end it will be the politicians who will have to make the final decision or the final throw of the dice.”

“And there, my personal contacts, Joseph's personal contacts, all the way to the top in Spain, in London and in Brussels, are fundamentally important to shepherd this process to a final conclusion.”

Mr Picardo said he and Dr Garcia had been involved in the close detail of each stage of the Brexit process from the outset and had forged relationships of trust with their interlocutors.

“We have the contours of this negotiation to such an extent at the tips of our fingers that if we were blind, we will still see it by touch,” he said.

“We feel every sinew of this negotiation. The slightest word change is something we understand immediately when it happens from the other side.”

“We know when the other side shift, one word or one emphasis, [and] you can't read your way into that. That's the reality.”

“This is too important a moment in the history of Gibraltar. We are too close to something special on the cusp of a treaty between the UK and the EU to risk it all on the basis that [Mr Azopardi] says [he] might be able to read into it.”

“This is not a negotiation where everything is written down. There is intuition involved in it.”

“There are personal relationships and how people reacted before and how they react now, how they used to say things before, how they say them now, where you're able to gauge whether they're moving or not they're moving on matters where we have needed to ensure that we insisted on the Gibraltar line.”

Dr Garcia added that despite frustration that the UK/EU treaty had yet to be delivered, the GSLP/Liberals’ handling of Brexit and its aftermath had been a success, ensuring Gibraltar had avoided the worst impact of leaving the EU even if the future agreement had yet to be sealed.

“Our record is a record of success, of success in having protected Gibraltar, on having kept Gibraltar safe, in having ensured that we maintained and protected the position of our businesses in relation to the United Kingdom market, of our students, in relation to fees of our patients, in relation to healthcare in the United Kingdom,” he said.

“And we engaged with Spain directly, I think it's important also to make that point.”

“After [PP Foreign Minister Jose Manuel] Margallo left, the Spaniards authorised direct contact between Spain and Gibraltar for the first time in a long time.”

He said Gibraltar had been directly involved in multilateral discussion at all levels and that there was no comparable experience on the GSD bench.

“I don't think anybody in the GSD has experience of multilateral discussions of this nature, of this intensity and of this detail,” he said.

“Nobody in the GSD has experience of this.”

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