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On Brexit and Gibraltar, good mood music but much to be done

An anti-Brexit demonstrator waves flags outside the Houses of Parliament, in London, Britain, September 10, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

Are we sleepwalking into a Brexit disaster? That was a question put to me by a reasonable, sensible person who follows politics closely and welcomed the optimism shown by the Gibraltar Government in the face of the uncertainty of withdrawal from the European Union, but who nonetheless could not dispel the niggling doubts.

He was talking after Chief Minister Fabian Picardo signalled to a high-powered audience of local businessmen and lawyers that there was consensus and understanding in Gibraltar, London, Madrid and Brussels on the need for a post-Brexit relationship between Gibraltar and the EU that ensured stability and prosperity for communities on both sides of the border.

It was a message that Picardo has voiced on numerous occasions in the past, but it seemed to carry more weight last week, and here’s why.

The Chief Minister was not speaking in a vacuum. He was speaking on Wednesday night, just hours after Spain’s Foreign Minister, Josep Borrell, told GBC he believed a deal on Gibraltar could be sealed before the deadline for the wider agreement on withdrawal and transition between the UK and the EU. Not only that, he said agreement on Gibraltar could become “the first step” toward a good Brexit deal, rather than “the last rock” on the road.

Borrell repeated the same message again the following day in an interview with the global news agency Bloomberg, a staple source of information for the financial markets and therefore highly influential. Later on Thursday, in comments to the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Spanish Parliament, he underlined the stance again, using the same words but going a little further by re-stating a position that had already been cemented under the Partido Popular’s last Foreign Minister, Alfonso Dastis. Spain, Borrell said, will not use Brexit to seek sovereignty gains. Its focus is instead on fomenting prosperity and protecting the interests of communities in the Campo de Gibraltar, a region plagued by crime and unemployment where thousands of ordinary people rely on Gibraltar for their livelihoods, he told Spanish MPs.

Taken on their own, the Chief Minister’s comments, carefully measured as they were, might seem over-enthusiastic and perhaps too bullish. But against the context of what Borrell was saying in Madrid, perhaps not. The inescapable conclusion is that the public statements in Gibraltar and the Spanish Congress are underpinned by months of solid, fruitful work.

There was, of course, another element in the mix last week, which started with the 25th anniversary of National Day. For three days, a cross-party delegation of 32 MPs and peers from both houses of the UK Parliament heard about Gibraltar’s concerns and hopes at first hand on the ground. The presence of such a large number of politicians flown over at taxpayer’s expense raised some eyebrows here, but it was unjustified criticism. 

At a time of flux and uncertainty in UK politics, there is one thing that British parliamentarians from across the political spectrum, Remainers and Brexiteers alike, can rally round, and that is the defence of Gibraltar and the right of Gibraltarians to determine their own future. “Don’t underestimate the value of that,” Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the Conservative Party’s influential 1922 Committee, told me during a chat at a reception in Nuno’s on the eve of National Day.

There was a video message too from Theresa May, the third consecutive year that a Prime Minister of the UK has done this. In might not seem much, but when a UK Prime Minister takes time out from the Brexit storm and the UK’s splintered, cutthroat politics to record a message for the people of Gibraltar on their National Day, that sends a powerful message to anyone watching, more so when, for the second year running, she despatches a minister to Gibraltar to underline the point.

Gibraltar has not always enjoyed such support and it is not something to be taken for granted. Gibraltarians have always overwhelmingly chosen to remain British, but not all past UK governments have respected that position. The ghost of joint sovereignty still haunts the corners of not-so-distant memory.

The backing in the UK Parliament is the product of hard work, not just by successive government ministers but by Gibraltar’s small team in London. It comes from hours of detailed analysis and discrete, face-to-face engagement with key players at all levels. It comes not from forcing a position on someone, or from shallow, populist jingoism harking back to empire, but from ensuring that decision-makers have a deep understanding of the issues that affect this community, of our red lines, and of our willingness to engage constructively with whoever we need to in order to jointly build a prosperous future. It is that engagement that proved critical to securing, fairly early on in the Brexit mess, vital agreements for Gibraltar such as continued access into UK markets after withdrawal, irrespective of the progress of UK/EU negotiations.

In a fractured world where the pieces are moving all the time, the value of that focal point must not be underplayed. It is that UK support for our core position on sovereignty and self-determination, coupled to our ability as a community to respond nimbly and effectively to the challenges that come our way, which will ultimately see us through the Brexit uncertainty that lies ahead.

Which is not to say, of course, that we are in clear. Far from it. Gibraltar, London and Madrid all appear to be in sync on the message of where they hope to get to, but as the Chief Minister pointed out last week, “the devil will be in the detail”. The mood music is good, but much work remains to be done, not just on the content of any agreement, but on what shape it will take too.

With the Socialist government of Pedro Sanchez under intense pressure on numerous fronts - Catalonia, migration, Franco’s exhumation and the controversy over academic qualifications - time is of the essence, more so as parties such as the PP and Ciudadanos lean further to the right in search of votes. The sooner a deal is reached and locked in, the better.

And there is a bigger question too, because our fortunes are tied intimately to those of the UK. That is something that can work both ways for us.

What would happen, for example, if a good agreement on Gibraltar’s post-Brexit future can be reached by all parties, but negotiations on the wider withdrawal agreement fail and the UK crashes into a ‘no deal’ scenario? One would hope that whatever gains could be made for the benefit of communities on either side of the frontier might still be protected in some way, not least given that it was the EU itself which, through Clause 24, sought to separate Gibraltar from the wider discussion. These are open-ended questions at the moment. They will, hopefully, become academic if a withdrawal deal is agreed by the UK and the EU. But if not, they will need swift answers.

In the meantime, the Gibraltar Government continues with its contingency planning in the event of a worst case scenario. Some of it we can see, like the advice for British passport holders issued last week in tandem with the UK. We are told other planning is under way in areas ranging from health to the supply of vital commodities. We can take that at face value for now, but if there is no progress on the wider agreement and Gibraltar’s place within it, more detail will have to be made public, and quickly, as to how businesses and families should prepare for withdrawal in March next year.

Which leaves us with this: Gibraltar is caught up in the maelstrom that is Brexit and will not escape the turmoil if negotiations fail. But in the midst of that storm, our small size and ability to face up to challenges has enabled us to make some crucial gains to protect future business, secure solid political support in the UK, and open a dialogue with our Spanish neighbours that will hopefully turn a crisis into the foundations of a more prosperous future.

Perhaps the best measure of where we are and where we are hopefully heading came last week from Andrew McLaughlin, the chief executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland International, the parent of NatWest. McLaughlin, a world traveller with his finger on the pulse of global economic and political issues, was here to celebrate the bank’s 30th anniversary on the Rock. He said he was often asked about Gibraltar and Brexit, but that it ranked low on his list of concerns. He said while Brexit felt “current and episodic”, there was “a long game” behind it, adding that Gibraltar was good at “playing that long game”. 

“If there is a people or a place which has the resilience and the wisdom to make sure it comes through this potential existential threat to a way of life, it’s the Gibraltarians,” McLaughlin added.

All the usual caveats apply, but we should perhaps take some comfort from those words. Because after all, he said it, not us.

Photo: REUTERS/Hannah McKay

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