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Scribbled in the margins, a clear message to Spain

As they walked into the UN Fourth Committee session in New York on Tuesday, Chief Minister Fabian Picardo and the Gibraltar delegation were expecting a full-frontal diplomatic assault from Spain. For days in the run-up to the meeting, the rightwing Spanish daily ABC, which can be relied on to reflect Madrid’s line, had prepared the ground with a barrage of articles about the “co-sovereignty” proposal floated by acting Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo, and how bad things would be for Gibraltar outside the EU. García-Margallo had himself raised the issue in media appearances and in a letter to EU members urging them to side with Spain and exclude Gibraltar from any Brexit negotiations. For extra bite, ABC also ran articles about tax and cigarettes, the traditional bugbears routinely flogged to death whenever it is convenient.

So imagine everyone’s surprise when, instead of the anticipated barrage couched in the cultured tones of diplomacy, Spain’s permanent representative to the UN, the urbane, silver-haired ambassador Román Oyarzun Marchesi, delivered a charm offensive and presented joint sovereignty as “a solution” to Gibraltar’s Brexit woes. This was dangerous territory for Gibraltar, and in the audience Picardo made quick changes to his prepared speech, scrawling new phrases in red ink on the margins of the text he had before him.

Oyarzun was all about presenting Spain as the knight in shining armour, rushing to Gibraltar’s aid with a proposal that would allow us to maintain our relationship with the EU. We could keep our British passports and have a Spanish one too if we wanted it. We would have a similar degree of self-government, a favourable tax regime and, the icing on the cake, the border would disappear. Spain was not imposing anything on anyone, the ambassador said. This offer was a starting point for talks and Spain would not object to Gibraltar forming part of the British negotiating team. Not only that, Spain would not interfere with our “lifestyle, customs or traditions” and would instead “respect ad promote them”. To diplomats without detailed knowledge of Gibraltar’s modern history, it might all have sounded perfectly acceptable. Picardo’s challenge was to swiftly illustrate why it was not. 

“I have no doubt that a call for negotiations may appear to the committee to be benign and reasonable on its face, but this one is not,” the Chief Minister told the meeting. “Today you have been treated to a dissertation of all the carrots available if we sell our land. But every day we hear the opposite – including the threats by Spain to close our frontier again.” 

The Chief Minister told the Fourth Committee that Gibraltar had already rejected a proposal for joint sovereignty in 2002. The Gibraltarians would never change their minds on this, he added. To ram the point home, he delivered a phrase that has already caught on as a hashtag on social media. “No way, José,” he said. In print, those words will make more than one person cringe. But on Tuesday, Picardo’s “no way, José” raised a chuckle that rippled around the room. One can never really tell, but it sounded like the diplomats approved of his cheek.

In more serious tone, Picardo underlined the point one last time before ending his address. “This is a blatant attempt to use the decolonisation process of the United Nations to turn Gibraltar into a new Spanish colony by redrawing the map of modern Europe in front of your eyes, and using Brexit as the lubricant for it to happen,” he said. “This is not conducive to positive and constructive neighbourly relations…Even in the face of lucrative offers to sell our homeland, we will never barter with our nation’s sovereignty.” 

Speeches delivered, the Gibraltarian delegation rushed off. The session had dragged on - there seemed to be an endless list of petitioners from Western Samoa - and they risked missing their evening flight to London. But as Picardo and his team sped to JFK, the Fourth Committee was still in full flow and it was the turn of ambassador Peter Wilson, Britain’s deputy permanent representative at the UN, to deliver the UK’s response to the Spanish offer. 

The British Government will always be viewed with suspicion by many in Gibraltar. The last joint sovereignty plan before this one was an Anglo-Hispanic venture, let us not forget. But on Tuesday at the UN, London’s line was as firm as Gibraltar could have hoped for.

Not once but twice in his response, the ambassador said Britain would neither discuss nor change the sovereignty of Gibraltar against the wishes of the Gibraltarians, who enjoyed the right of self-determination. Couple that statement to Picardo’s earlier message and, in effect, Britain had delivered a torpedo below the waterline of the Spanish proposal. 

But there was more. Wilson made clear - as had Picardo before him - that the UK and Gibraltar wanted a return to the Trilateral Forum for Dialogue. The trilateral process was the most “credible, constructive and practical” means of fostering cross-border cooperation, Wilson told the meeting. He also explained that under its modern and mature constitutional relationship with Britain, Gibraltar was responsible for everything but external relations, defence and internal security. And then he added this line: “Gibraltar’s active participation, in its own right, in any dialogue process is therefore non-negotiable.” Spain had hoped to relegate Gibraltar to the role of bit player in a UK team, but here was another strike below the waterline. In diplomacy, the words “non negotiable” are not used lightly.

And there was still more to come in the UK position, this time of significance to the wider Brexit discussion that had served as a backdrop to the Fourth Committee meeting. 

A week earlier, García-Margallo had sent a five-page letter to EU governments asking for their support on Spain’s position in respect of Gibraltar. The future of the Rock was a bilateral matter for the UK and Spain, the letter said, and Gibraltar should be excluded from any negotiations between the EU and Britain. The response from Wilson was short and concise: “Gibraltar is a territory to which the European Union treaties largely apply. The UK Government has therefore committed to fully involving Her Majesty’s Government of Gibraltar as we prepare for the process to exit the European Union.”

The question now is how the international community will respond, particularly the EU countries which must negotiate Brexit with the UK. Spain is presenting itself as the reasonable party in this situation and it is incumbent, not just on Gibraltar but on the UK too, to continue highlighting why this is not the case. 

The EU must be reminded, for example, that the only reason important European legislation has been stalled is because the PP reneged on commitments made by the PSOE under the trilateral process. We must highlight the fact that the only limit on greater cross-border economic cooperation and growth is Spain’s past use of the border as a political weapon. We must stress that Gibraltarians believe in Europe - whether in or out of the EU - and that Spain is seeking to use Brexit to further its outdated sovereignty aspirations against the will of the people of the Rock, threatening adverse consequences if we do not succumb. 

If the EU wants to, it can call Spain into check with a reminder that there are bigger things at stake. If the EU wants to, it should be possible to agree solutions that will allow Gibraltar and the Campo to prosper even after Brexit. The only stumbling block is Spain.

Picardo summed it up on Tuesday, in a response to Oyarzun scribbled just minutes before on the printed copy of his text. “All of the potential economic benefits you have heard today that could flow from joint sovereignty could flow already if Spain simply respected our choice not to be Spanish,” he told diplomats at the UN meeting. “In other words, joint sovereignty is not an essential ingredient for the prosperity that could simply flow now if Spain stopped blocking it.”

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