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Opinion & Analysis

Now is the time

Earlier this week, Spain’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Arancha Gonzalez Laya, was asked during a press conference whether the truck chaos witnessed recently in Dover offered a glimpse of what we might expect at Gibraltar’s border with Spain if a deal for the Rock’s future with the EU could not be agreed by midnight tonight.

Mrs Gonzalez Laya rightly said the situations were different but acknowledged there were some parallels.

Anyone who knows Gibraltar need not think of Dover to imagine the impact of a slow border here. We’ve had enough experience over past decades.

In the absence of a deal for Gibraltar, the border will become an external frontier of the European Union. That means the return of stringent checks and wet stamping of passports. The return of queues.

In 2017, Schengen members changed their rules to require cross-checking against databases of passports from non-Schengen states. When Spain trialled the measures for a short period at the border, checking documents one by one, pedestrian and vehicle traffic ground to a halt, causing a major logjam and huge inconvenience for thousands of people.

The rules were eased, one of the benefits of being inside the EU if not inside Schengen. But the episode is important to recall because without an agreement, the chaos witnessed for that brief period in 2017 gives us a good idea of what we can expect.

Yes, we are familiar with queues, but this time it’s different. In the past, even at the worst points, the queues arose from political pressure on the issue of the day. It was like a tap. On. Off. On. Off. Even when they dragged on for weeks, we could reasonably expect them to ease at some point when the political climate changed.

This time it’s different. Brexit has dragged us out of the EU against our will and, despite the UK’s promises that our interests would be protected, we are approaching the end of the year without a safety net to arrest the fall.

For all the talk from all sides of citizens’ rights, a free-flowing border and an arc of prosperity – noble aims, no doubt – here we are, about to crash out without an agreement in place.

Even at this late stage, we are none the wiser about the detail of the proposed deal, although there is ample speculation based on unattributed leaks.

All we know for sure is that without agreement, there is potential for mayhem at the border and a knock-on economic hit on either side of it. In the longer term, a ‘no deal’ Brexit risks opening Pandora’s box in our community’s relations not just with our nearest neighbour, but with the UK too.

Years ago, when the PP hawk Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo was Spain’s Foreign Minister, our reporters used to head down to the queues on both sides of the border to interview people.

There was the couple heading home after medical treatment, the Spanish junior chess champ checked at the border, the coach driver with a busload of frustrated, angry passengers, and countless others.

It was important to put names and faces to these queues as a reminder that, beyond the politics and the legal complexities, it’s all quite simple: this is about normal people going about their lives.

Whatever the stumbling blocks, negotiators must resolve them in a manner acceptable to all sides. There is still time. Last night, intense talks were still under way and a deal appeared within reach.

Let us hope the negotiators, who have spared nothing to reach that goal, see their efforts come to fruition.

The citizens of Gibraltar who didn’t want Brexit, and those of the Campo de Gibraltar whose lives are intimately linked to ours, deserve nothing less.