Solid assurances, but an uncertain future
Gibraltarians might be forgiven for being circumspect when it comes to believing assurances from the British Government.
For many, the memory of the failed 2002 joint sovereignty proposal still lingers like a bad hangover, while recent incidents like the MoD runway episode do little to foster confidence.
But in fairness, as the UK heads toward the EU exit door dragging Gibraltar with it, there is little more that this community could ask for from the British Government at this moment in time.
This is, in large part, thanks to the work carried out by the Gibraltar Government to ensure Gibraltar’s interests are properly represented. But in many respects, until now at least, officials have been pushing on an open door.
The assurances given by junior Brexit minister Robin Walker yesterday are not new and have been heard numerous times in recent months, and in some cases even before that. The fact they are repeated at every opportunity, by both UK ministers and parliamentarians alike, should serve of some comfort as we head into an uncertain and challenging post-Brexit world.
Fundamental among those assurances is the double-lock commitment on sovereignty. That commitment, first secured by Sir Peter Caruana in the wake of the 2002 fiasco, means Britain will uphold our right to self-determination, and for as long as we want to remain British, we shall remain British.
Britain’s commitment to maintain our current access to UK financial markets and build on it is also reassuring, and will strengthen investor confidence in the Rock at this difficult time. So too will London’s promise to examine ways of including Gibraltar in future trade deals with other countries around the world. With these small but crucial steps, the foundations of our future reality are being laid.
As always though, it all boils down to the border and relations with Spain.
Mr Walker, who drove across from Spain on Wednesday evening after his flight was diverted to Málaga, saw for himself the importance of that critical chokepoint. He said the UK understands the vital role of a free-flowing frontier crossing, not just to Gibraltar’s economy but to neighbouring Andalucia’s too. He expressed confidence that “sensible arrangements” could be reached to guarantee fluidity.
Spain’s position in the Brexit talks remains to be seen. Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis, a career diplomat, has clearly changed the abrasive tone set by his predecessor José Manuel García-Margallo, replacing it with a restrained, tempered approach. Likewise Spain and the UK have acknowledged their extensive common interests and signalled their desire for a positive future relationship, both at EU level and bilaterally. But the Spanish Government’s underlying position on Gibraltar’s sovereignty remains unchanged, and the key question in the months ahead is how this will filter through to the Brexit negotiations.
One thing is clear: Spain must not be allowed to use Gibraltar as a bargaining chip, because the stakes are too high for all involved.
Earlier this week, UK Brexit minister David Davis – Mr Walker’s boss – said he was certain that the UK and Ireland, working with the European Commission, would find practical solutions to ensure a free-flowing Irish border after Brexit. The key factor there is good will on all sides to make it work.
It is that good will that Britain must now secure in respect of the border between Gibraltar and Spain, not just from the government in Madrid, but from the EU institutions and the remaining 26 members.
Gibraltar, which voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU but must now leave with the UK, deserves no less. In the meantime, we must welcome the UK’s assurances, and keep a sceptical eye on developments.