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Opinion & Analysis

Politicians need to lead on Brexit

By Robert Vasquez

The Gibraltar Government and the Opposition are agreed that frontier fluidity is what is needed at final Brexit. Even Sir Joe Bossano’s National Economic Plan relies on that free flow. All are also agreed that there should be no dilution of sovereignty, jurisdiction or control - none define or specify these fundamentals. To boot, all fail to emphasise the potentially catastrophic consequences of not reaching arrangements that achieve frontier fluidity. It is a muddled path that they draw, with confusion ruling and no clear destination for the 31st December 2020, which will be with us very shortly.

VAGUE DESTINATION?

This coincidence of imprecise views amongst our elected representatives is apparent from the recent pronouncements by the GSLP-Liberal Alliance Government (in the interview answers by the Chief Minister, Fabian Picardo, to this newspaper), as followed up on by a GSD Opposition press release (quoting the Leader of the Opposition, Keith Azopardi, in reaction to the Chief Minister).

None of them say how frontier fluidity will be achieved beyond vague references to arrangements and even treaties, nor do any define what they mean by sovereignty, jurisdiction or control.

So where are we and where are our politicians taking us? It’s hard to say! Surely it is the Government’s responsibility to tell us, openly, frankly and transparently, in accordance with their manifesto promise, where they are leading us to at this crucial time?

Clarity is even more important when the Spanish Foreign Ministry, following meetings last week over Gibraltar, are so clear, saying “The conversations have as priority the well-being of citizens and workers and cover a wide variety of issues that must be resolved in order to achieve a strong, healthy and balanced relationship in the Campo de Gibraltar including mobility of people and workers, transport, goods and services, police and customs, environment, tax and other level playing field provisions.”

NO LEADERSHIP

This ambiguity exemplifies the Chief Minister’s style of politics; he lacks real leadership at a crucial time.

He is disjointed and contradictory; it seems, with the aim of pushing his actual objectives forward by muddying what are likely to be unpopular measures, while taking his fellow party members to a place from which they will find it difficult to retreat and Gibraltar along for the ride also.

The choice is stark: ‘shared prosperity’ with an agreement ensuring frontier fluidity, or potentially difficult financial and economic times. The Chief Minister himself has admitted publicly that without frontier fluidity Gibraltar faces “… almost inevitable economic collapse….”

The challenge is achieving certainty on frontier fluidity without any compromise on sovereignty, jurisdiction or control: a seemingly impossible challenge.

Assuming no specific agreement over Gibraltar is reached with the EU, after final Brexit frontier fluidity will depend entirely on how freely or strictly Spain will apply existing EU border requirements on goods and people. Enforcement will be subject to the vagaries of the goodwill of Spanish Governments from time to time, without Gibraltar’s current defence against these vagaries (EU Treaty rights of freedom of movement of persons and goods).

Remembering that no restrictions will apply to EU Citizens moving across our border unless our government, to spite our economic and financial nose, decides to make it difficult for them.

UNDERSTANDING SOVEREIGNTY, JURISDICTION AND CONTROL

Both the Government and Opposition coincide that in reaching an agreement, no incursions or changes can be made on the fundamentals of sovereignty, jurisdiction and control, but neither defines what each see to be the meaning of these terms. There is a variety of meanings, too many to detail, but in the current context one can narrow them down to matters relevant to Gibraltar in the immediate future, as and when Brexit will bite.

A starting point is that, whilst we were in the EU, the UK had given up elements of sovereignty, jurisdiction and control to the EU and its institutions. Let us all remember the call of the UK’s Brexiteer, which was let’s recover the UK’s sovereignty, with slogans like “Take Back Control” and “Let’s Get Brexit Done”.

In the same way as the UK, during EU membership, Gibraltar had surrendered elements of sovereignty, jurisdiction and control to the EU. That being so, would Gibraltar agreeing to continue a similar level of devolution of sovereignty, jurisdiction and control to the EU beyond final Brexit, in order to maintain frontier fluidity, be considered to contradict Gibraltar’s British sovereignty? Clearly it cannot, as it would be the continuation of an existing state of being.

CURRENT STATUS

After all, the effect of Gibraltar joining Schengen and/or the Customs Union or of similar agreements would be a slightly increased level of agreed transfer to the EU. Remember that 96% of us voted for remaining in the EU, so we would simply be putting into action that very clearly expressed political call.

In reality, we would not be granting the EU much more than we have not already lived with for decades. Is this where there is room for manoeuvre for an agreement to be reached at final Brexit by which frontier fluidity might be achieved?

In answering this question there are two inescapable certainties that need to be faced.

FLUID FRONTIER

One is that the stark choice facing Gibraltar today comes about due to a belief that EU membership, and therefore the fluid frontier we have come to depend on, would remain an everlasting status: no one foresaw Brexit, but, there again, all have accepted the benefits of EU membership, from which, with agreement, we could continue to benefit.

The individual and collective comfort that developed from this reliance and trust on EU membership led to huge public and personal financial commitments, both recurrent and longer-term borrowings, that now hang as a huge weight round our neck.

Some of us warned for years against increasing public expenditure and borrowings, warnings that were ignored in favour of the party-political selfish expediency and opportunism, practiced by all politicians, of getting more votes at General Elections in the quest to take or remain in power.

At an individual level, are we prepared to face the effects of a shrinkage in our economy, with the effects that will likely have on employment and pay, followed by the impact that this will have on the lifestyle and comfort of many, for example? Each of us will need to decide that.

The other is, whatever the Chief Minister might argue, that an agreement with the EU that will provide for a free-flowing frontier will of necessity have provisions that will bring us close to the ambit and influence of the EU.

The effect will be an inevitable recognition of the reality of our existing and ongoing political, logistic, economic, financial dependence on the EU, which is a fact of geography and life that is unavoidable.

SLIM DIFFERENCES

There is one thin veneer of difference in the positions taken by each of the Government and the Opposition. The GSD’s call for a referendum on any proposal that would change our political or constitutional status. But if both political parties give effect to their core policy, namely no change in jurisdiction, control or sovereignty, any such political or constitutional change is an impossibility.

Therefore, this distinction, made by the GSD, is either a nonsense that takes us nowhere, or an admission that, despite promises, in its eyes there might be an arrangement negotiated that will have sovereignty, jurisdiction or control implications.

TELL IT AS IT IS

Our elected politicians owe their electorate more than the confused scene that they are giving us right now. The sadness is that the deficit caused by our elected politicians goes to the very core of the survival of our democracy.

Our politicians need to take their responsibilities and obligations more seriously. Tell it as it is. Going round the houses will not get anyone to the goal that is chosen or may be necessary to ensure our continued separate British identity.

Finally, Chief Minister, respect our constitutional bodies. If any type of treaty, understanding or arrangement is reached, there may not be a need for a referendum, but the prior approval of Parliament, following full disclosure and debate would establish an empowering precedent.

Otherwise, what we will have is the undemocratic exercise of the UK’s constitutional power over external affairs, with just your undemocratic consent. Such a snub would be a major slight on our Parliament and elected representatives and so to our democracy. A slight that has already been suffered by the manner in which the Spanish Tax Treaty was dealt with, over which our Parliament was ignored.

If we seek greater self-determination we must empower and respect our institutions, the main one being Parliament.

Robert Vasquez, QC, is a barrister. He is a former chairman of the GSD who stood as an independent candidate at the last election on a platform of democratic reform.