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Opinion & Analysis

Integration: elixir or poisoned chalice?

by Jeremy Sacramento

If we take Harold Wilson’s quip that “a week is a long time in politics” as a yardstick, the past three weeks have been eternal for Gibraltar. The tumultuous weeks have seen the exemption of Gibraltar from Theresa May’s letter triggering Article 50, the inclusion of a double veto for Spain in the draft EU negotiating guidelines (the infamous Clause 22), and a cascade of statements, reports and press coverage on the same, not least Michael Howard’s battle cry.

The resulting uncertainty is weighing heavily on our Gibraltarian community. After all, we know too well the contempt with which Spain holds Gibraltar and the effort she will take to anachronistically advance her claim. With that said, Clause 22 took us by surprise, and there has been a consequent clambering for possible elixirs; quick-fixes that might make our troubles disappear. To this end, the allure of integration with the UK is quickly captivating the attention of many, including our political leaders. In August the Leader of the Opposition was already hinting at this option as a “fall-back plan”, but the Chief Minister has now too insinuated the possibility of pursuing this option, in an interview with el Pais (7th April). Neither however consider this a primary objective. More interesting perhaps is the increased touting of the idea amongst political actors in the UK; a step change from UK’s denial of this option during the 1970s and therefore adds a whisper of attainability.

Integration, integration, integration

So why exactly does integration with the UK sound so appealing at this juncture? In short, integration would provide an immediate trump card for Clause 22. In Gibraltar being a constituent part of the UK it would, for obvious reasons, be impossible to apply the conditions of the clause. Moreover, the post-Brexit objective of the continuance of a 'common market' with the UK, one of the central features of Gibraltar's lobbying effort, would also be assured. Outside of Brexit there is the significant advantage of integration finally enabling the delisting from the UN list of non-self-governing territories which would go a long way in hampering the Spanish claim. Additionally, Gibraltar would gain an MP in the Commons and perhaps even some of our notable citizens could be 'bumped upstairs' to the Lords.

Put like this, an ideal scenario, it appears that integration would rid us of a host of problems and provide much needed certainty in the Brexit process. However, this very superficial assessment fails to take into account inherent intricacies such a move might involve, and perhaps more importantly, the negative implications it might harbour.

Yes… but bear in mind

In fact, the above ideal-type pro integration arguments rest on a few assumptions. Firstly, that integration is an option to the pertinent powers in the UK. That is, although there is heightened murmuring on the matter from important players, it has not been No10 or King Charles Street that has officially extended the hand; a feat which might be more challenging to achieve than imagined. Take for instance the political and bureaucratic work that would be required to bring this to fruition, and all during the Brexit process (now too a General Election), and the inevitability of antagonising Spain further. Both of which the UK Government would be (very) unwilling to add to the cesspit that is Brexit negotiations. Secondly, the assumption, in using this as a trump card for Clause 22, that it is remotely conceivable for integration to be achieved before the end of the Brexit negotiations. Thirdly, that the integration package would uphold our much vaunted level of autonomy in running our affairs. Will the UK really be willing to grant us our impressive level of autonomy? Surely, the power-hungry devolved administrations would play a ‘if they can have it, so can we’ tactic.

This latter point is especially tricky when we consider our fiscal autonomy and British perception thereof. Whether we like it or not there is a lingering perception across the UK of Gibraltar as a tax haven. The UK Government would certainly present Gibraltar with a quid pro quo and propose a restructured fiscal arrangement, both as a means to ward off the devolved administrations and to portray an image of acting against tax havens –the UK initiative to introduce ‘public registers’ across Overseas Territories gives credence to this.

Finally, the assumed guaranteed de-listing from the UN list of NSGT might also be slightly naïve. If the past five decades are anything to go by, UN reticence to Gibraltar’s de-listing is an understatement. The impact of integration in the UN might be closer to a further extension of the legalistic toing and froing than immediate de-listing.

Taking the above together, the possibility of integration any time soon becomes a fool’s errand.

Careful what you wish for

Let’s say however that integration does become our objective beyond Brexit, especially if one factors in that logically integration would, even post facto, nullify any aspects of Clause 22. It is difficult to predict the official reaction from the British Government following a concerted effort from the Gibraltarian Government and community. Therefore the arguments for integration still stand despite the impossibility of a pre-Brexit integration agreement. The question then becomes: even if Clause 22 can be applied post facto and the UK Government swayed to accept integration, do we really want integration? Is there anything we stand to lose? In short, yes, there are a number of notable implications that might result from integration.

Firstly, the fanfare about having an MP in the Commons might actually work against us. One of the most impressive weapons in Gibraltar’s arsenal is the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Gibraltar which can effectively be brought to bear whenever any issues warrant voicing in the Commons. With an MP Gibraltarian issues would be heard from the horse’s mouth and thus by default would make this group if not completely redundant at least much less necessary, from a Commons perspective. The consequent numerical loss would have an impact on Gibraltar’s voice in the chamber. Secondly, where would it leave our Parliament? Inevitably, our Parliament would be directly (as opposed to indirectly) subordinate to Westminster; what is more our MPs would become MGPs. Thirdly, our identity might suffer a slow and gradual decline insofar as being distinct from the British identity. The reality is that despite our pro-British sentiment we are far from British in our social and cultural make-up, and proudly so. The political assimilation would inevitably bring a gradual assimilation of identity.

With that said

The slight loss of political agency as well as the potential weakening of our identity might perhaps be an acceptable compromise in order to reap the benefits of the ideal-type integration: nullification of Clause 22; common market with the UK; de-listing from UN list of NSGT and thus silencing (some of) the Spanish rhetoric; an MP in the Commons; and, the maintenance of our current level of autonomy. The success of any future attempt to secure all of these benefits rests largely on the Government of Gibraltar’s efforts and our community’s resolve; both of which would take time to perfect and cultivate.

Therefore, although there is admittedly a particular allure to integration at this pre-Brexit moment in time, we should take a step back and consider whether or not Gibraltar really wants to go in this direction and if so, how we might go about attaining it.

So elixir or poisoned chalice? The concoction is still brewing, so let’s pour in all the ingredients before we dare take a sip!

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