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Opinion & Analysis

A mad week in Brexitland

An anti-Brexit protester holds a placard outside the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain March 14, 2019. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

The prospect of a hard Brexit, with its unforeseen and unpredictable economic consequences, has receded a little. While it remains the default legal position on March 29 in the absence of a deal, a majority of MPs in the House of Commons signalled clearly this week that they will not countenance such an outcome. We can permit ourselves a shallow sigh of relief.

There are now fewer options open to MPs in the Commons, and Gibraltar’s position in each of those is protected as best it can be.

Option one is Theresa May’s controversial Withdrawal Agreement, complete with its equally-contentious Gibraltar Protocol. MPs in the House of Commons will have a third chance to vote on this next week, having already overwhelmingly rejected it twice. 

Why might it go through this third time? The EU has stated clearly that the deal is sealed and the negotiation is over, but that will not stop Mrs May seeking additional assurances on the Irish backstop, the main stumbling block. She may or may not get them. But the key change is the political removal of ‘no deal’ as an option. That has punched the wind out of hardline Brexiteers who, having opposed Mrs May’s deal in the past, may now shift camps rather than see their Brexit dreams derailed. The Mirror’s Kevin McGuire summed it up beautifully when he said the arch Brexiteer Jacob Rees Mogg may now have to vote for a deal which, only a few weeks ago, he was arguing would turn the UK into a vassal state of the EU. “I can’t wait,” Mr McGuire added gleefully.

If the deal does go through, Gibraltar will form part of the two-year transition period while the future relationship is hammered out. Gibraltar has secured that position after intense negotiations with the UK and Spain over the Gibraltar Protocol and its associated memorandums. These have drawn heavy flak from the GSD, which insists the government has handed Spain a say in Gibraltar’s affairs, an accusation robustly rejected by the government itself. But whatever we ultimately think of that deal, the immediate upshot is that, should the Withdrawal Agreement be passed next week, Gibraltar will leave the EU alongside the UK, rather than face a cliff-edge on its own. 

If the deal is rejected, what happens next is anyone’s guess. An extension will be requested from the EU, whose 27 members must agree unanimously whether or not to grant it. In the Gibraltar Parliament this week, GSD MP Daniel Feetham sought assurances from the Chief Minister that the UK would counter any attempt by Spain to use that extension to somehow strengthen its hand. Mr Picardo said he had received those assurances from the UK, adding that Mrs May had been a stalwart champion of Gibraltar throughout the Brexit process.

Time will tell and we will not drop our guard.

ELUSIVE ROADMAP

Before deciding whether or not to grant an extension, the EU will want to see a clear road map of where the UK hopes to go. Allowing more time for Brexit seems pointless if all that is going to happen is yet another round of endless, visceral to-ing and fro-ing. The EU is tired of Brexit, not least because the uncertainty is damaging not just economically but politically too in the run-up to European elections in May.

But the hopes for the UK drawing up that roadmap are another matter altogether. There has been talk of allowing MPs to hold indicative votes on various permutations, of trying to return to Brussels for a different deal, of going to the people with a new referendum on what the country should do. But all those options, for now at least, are theoretical. The only firm outcome this week is that MPs voted to rule out ‘no deal’ and seek an extension beyond March 29. The rest is up in the air.

The prospect of a second referendum is attractive on many levels, particularly in the Remain camp, but is riven with dangers too. It will be seen by many as a denial of democracy, a failure to uphold the outcome of a referendum and subsequent electoral commitments. And anyway, what will the question be on the ballot paper? Given the sentiments in the country, a second referendum could turn into a fast road to a hard Brexit. Because make no mistake, people are angry, and not just in the UK.

I had a conversation on Main Street earlier this week with a local woman who told me a hard Brexit was the best thing for both the UK and Gibraltar. She was utterly convinced that a clean break with the EU was the only way out of the chaos that is Brexit. “What has the EU ever done for us?” she asked. I ran off a list: funding; easy movement across borders; access to university education across Europe; no roaming charges; progressive legislation in everything from labour rights to the environment; etc etc. I held back from mentioning peace in Europe, but you get the point.

It reminded me of that scene in Monty Python’s ‘The Life of Brian’ where the members of the People’s Front of Judea, complaining about the Romans, end up praising their straight roads, their sanitation, their aqueducts, their influence.  Except unlike the film, my interlocutor was not convinced. She wanted a hard Brexit, full stop. But she could not explain why that would be better than leaving with a deal or, dare I say it, not leaving at all.

COUNTER-INTUITIVE

From the outset, the arguments for Remain were always more complicated than the arguments for Leave. Explaining the workings of the European Union, its benefits and deep positive influence across many areas of life, was never going to be easy. Conversely, the Leave argument could be summed up in the dangerously seductive sound bite “take back control”. 

This week in Parliament, Mr Picardo turned that sound bite on its head. Amid the chaos of the past week in Westminster, Brexiteers had another option open to them, he suggested. “If it came to it and we were asked for our advice, what I would say to all colleagues in Westminster is that the best way to take back control of the process of leaving would be to revoke the Article 50 notification and remove the EU’s ability to pressure the United Kingdom,” he said.

He is not alone in this analysis, albeit it is a minority view. Clive Crook, a self-confessed Eurosceptic columnist for the Financial Times and Bloomberg, said the essential point to draw from the week’s events was that Brexit had “finally collapsed”. The UK is able to unilaterally revoked Article 50 and, he argued, should do so while it still can. “With or without a general election, with or without a second referendum, the country needs to get itself out from under the thumb of the EU — and its only hope of doing that is to stay, until further notice, in the EU,” he wrote.

This counter-intuitive position might seem fanciful at first blush, but it comes at the end of a week during which the tectonic plates of Brexit have shifted. Dare we even hope for a revocation of Article 50? It’s probably best not to, because it seems like such a remote possibility and even if it should transpire, it comes with deep risks and dangers which, badly managed, could even end in civil unrest on the streets of Britain. And yet…

FINALLY

There’s one last thought that endures at the end of this mad week in Brexitland. Whatever the outcome of next week’s vote in the Commons, we should all brace for turbulence. Because the horse trading and upheaval we have seen so far will be nothing compared to what lies around the corner. 

In that sense, all our political parties share common ground in the need for this community to prepare for all eventualities, ‘no deal’ included. This was a point raised during GBC’s excellent Viewpoint programme on Thursday, where speakers agreed that Gibraltar should seek to function as an island economy to reduce our dependence on the border. In reality, our experience after the 1969 closure of the frontier means that we already function this way in key areas such as power generation and the supply of water. We have covered this ground before.

But in doing so, we should guard against becoming insular in our outlook, not least where the EU and, in particular, Spain are concerned. The past two years have given this community ample reason to turn our back on the EU and our nearest neighbour. It is not just about the EU and Spain’s approach to Brexit, but also about persistent incursions and Madrid’s outdated institutional mindset, which appears incapable of seeing beyond the word colony.

In a seminar in La Linea this week, participants from Spain and Gibraltar shared human stories of the trauma of the border closure, the families and friendships that were torn apart, the divisions and hatred that were sown. It is that above all else that we must guard against, and we must do so by continuing to reach out to the world in friendship and good faith, safe in the knowledge that we Gibraltarians are the only ones who can decide the future of this Rock, whatever some politicians might think in Madrid.

Together, as a community, we have the confidence and the ability to build a prosperous future out of the maelstrom that surrounds us.

MAIN PHOTO: Reuters/Peter Nicholls