Political turmoil in Spain means no end in sight for Rock’s Brexit woes
Let’s start with the unavoidable: There is little prospect of any agreement on a UK/EU treaty on Gibraltar ahead of the snap general election called by Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez for July 23. Chief Minister Fabian Picardo acknowledged as much earlier this week.
The deal is between the UK and the EU, but Brussels has made clear it will not sign up to anything without the backing of Spain, which has played a key role throughout the negotiations.
There may be some technical work that can continue, but with Spain on an election footing it’s hard to see any conclusion to this tortuous process between now and July 23.
Another obvious fact: Mr Sanchez, after the drubbing his Socialist party received at the polls in Sunday’s regional and local elections in Spain, is up against the ropes.
Across the country, support for the Partido Popular and the far-right party Vox surged, opening the prospect of the two parties forming coalitions to govern many autonomous regions and councils around Spain.
Bringing forward an election that was due in December was a bold and unexpected move by Mr Sanchez, who reclaimed the political narrative and caught political allies and rivals alike on the hop. But one can’t help feeling too it is a move that smacks of desperation.
It’s all in for Mr Sanchez in this high-stake gamble, and the outcome if it backfires could be a PP government propped up by Vox.
For Gibraltar, that could turn the present nightmare into a perfect Brexit storm instead of the rainbow of opportunity we had been promised and hoped for.
There is no need for reminders of Vox’s hostile stance on Gibraltar and what that party might demand from the PP in exchange for support on more pressing domestic issues in Spain.
For the ultra-nationalists of Vox, choosing a stick over a carrot on Gibraltar would be like red meat to wolves.
Mr Sanchez will say the PP and Vox are one and the same in a bid to rally parties to his left.
But while the PP and Vox are united on many issues including their hostility to Catalan and Basque separatism, they are divided on others including immigration, feminism and globalisation.
The picture is far from clear despite the reams of newsprint dedicated to the prospect of a PP/Vox administration since Monday’s announcement.
One can’t just extrapolate municipal and regional results to predict the outcome of a general election. People often vote differently when deciding who to back on their doorstep.
But even if you do extrapolate, the outcome remains uncertain.
Analysis by El Pais earlier this week suggested that, while the PP might win the general election, it would not have a sufficient majority to govern even in coalition with Vox. Conversely, the newspaper suggested, the Socialists may lose the election but may yet be able to stitch together a coalition of left-leaning and regional parties that would allow it to govern.
That may well be convenient analysis for a left-leaning newspaper, but it is at least possible, though it would lead to a turbulent and fractious parliament.
From our perspective though, it would give a Sánchez administration time to get a deal done on Gibraltar, assuming they still want it.
Mr Sanchez is a wily operator who has risen from ashes in the past, and he must see better odds in July rather than face a slow bleed for the next seven months.
And even if there is a change of government, there may still be some room for manoeuvre, albeit in increasingly thin margins.
Vox will not change its position on Gibraltar, that much is clear. But the PP is a different beast under Alberto Nuñez Feijoo than it was under Pablo Casado, who had taken the party to the right in a failed bid to stem the exodus of supporters to Vox.
Mr Feijoo is chasing the centre ground of moderate conservatism, the space once occupied by fellow Galician and former PP leader Mariano Rajoy. His position on Gibraltar will be tougher than the Socialists’ – even if both parties share common ground on the issue of sovereignty – but should he win, Mr Feijoo will be governing while Spain holds the EU presidency.
After two years of intense negotiation based on common goals and goodwill from all sides, it will be a hard sell in Brussels to suddenly adopt a hardline stance that risks alienating the UK at a time when it is working with the EU to repair some of the damage caused by Brexit against the backdrop of war in Ukraine and the need for unity.
It’s always worth dipping into the archive on these occasions.
Remember this, for example, from 2018: “Our concern is the citizens and that is why we’re trying to reach an agreement that at least maintains their current circumstances and the general economic situation in Gibraltar and the Campo and, if possible, improves it.”
That was from the mouth of Alfonso Dastis, the Foreign Minister in the PP administration after Mr Rajoy dropped the hawkish Jose Manuel Garcia Margallo in the wake of the 2016 Brexit vote.
Because lest we forget, the discussion about Gibraltar’s post-Brexit future that has led us here through multiple twists and turns started under the PP.
“Let’s hold our nerve,” Mr Picardo said earlier this week.
But let’s also be realistic. Like it or not, the risk of a no-deal Brexit after more than two years of treaty negotiations increased sharply this week.
That is a frightening prospect, even if we pride ourselves on being a resilient community able to adapt to adversity.
No one’s going to physically close the border, but you don’t have to slam shut the gates to achieve a similar effect.
Without a treaty, we’ll feel the full effect of the Schengen immigration rules at the frontier, and we may be tempted to apply reciprocal measures in return.
People and businesses who rely on border fluidity for their livelihoods will become pawns in a 300-year tussle, precisely the scenario that negotiators have been working so hard to avoid.
Not to mention what it might do to the good neighbourly relations we have always enjoyed at grass-roots level, international politics aside.
Most of us would rather not live as if under siege.
That’s what the negotiators have been trying to achieve in pursuit of an elusive Gibraltar treaty, a framework that allows the Rock to dovetail with the EU for the good of citizens on either side of the border, and despite the UK’s Brexit vote that tore us from the bloc against our will on the narrowest of margins.
Depending on the outcome of the Spanish general election, a deal may still be under negotiation when we ourselves go to the polls later this year against the backdrop of multiple domestic problems and challenges of our own.
The GSLP/Liberals will likely argue they are the only ones with the experience to see us through any negotiation, or indeed the collapse of the talks should it happen. The GSD meanwhile will question why we didn’t secure protective guarantees earlier on and will argue the GSLP/Liberals are unfit to govern. We’ve heard the exchanges many times before.
And there may be another troubling factor on the horizon if one day, perhaps in the not-too-distant future, the UK returns to the EU fold.
Perhaps it will be a slow return in stages, perhaps not, but there’s little doubt of the growing realisation in Britain that Brexit was a huge mistake built on lies.
If the UK does edge back closer to the EU, without an arrangement of our own we’ll be left out.
Because much as the UK demanded that Spain open the border in 1982 as a condition of entry into the EU, so Madrid will ask a price too. And we all know what that will be.
The danger is that the only British territory attached to mainland Europe will choke on the hardest of Brexits, even while the UK looks after its own interests and we beat our collective chest about how British we are.