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Opinion & Analysis

Space to breathe, but curves ahead

On issues of legal substance at least, little appears to have changed.

The Withdrawal Agreement and political declaration approved on Sunday include Gibraltar in the deal and the transition phase, and will ensure that our exit from the EU is as soft as possible. Until December 2020 at least, things will remain much as they are today.

That in itself is a major achievement. Remember that two years ago, with the Partido Popular’s Jose Manuel García-Margallo still in office, Spain was threatening to leave us out of the transition period, something that would have seen Gibraltar plummet off the Brexit cliff-edge even while the UK’s departure was cushioned.

Assuming the divorce deal survives the House of Commons - the biggest question mark of all - that fall has been averted. But after the transition period is over, Gibraltar’s future is less clear. Therein lies the challenge now.

The next months, perhaps even years, will be critical for our community and we must guard against any attempts to whittle away at sovereignty or, crucially, the ingredients of jurisdiction and control.

But then, that is our default setting. It is the responsibility of all our elected politicians, of our civil society organisations, of each and every one of us. It is our collective task to remain alert, as we have always done, to any attempt to wrest from us that which we most treasure, our British sovereignty and our right to determine our own future.

Spain believes it has won “transcendental” commitments from its European Union colleagues on Gibraltar. In a nutshell, the EU has agreed that any deal on Gibraltar’s future relationship with the EU must be negotiated separately from the UK agreement and must first be discussed by London and Madrid.

There is no doubt that this is a major development and one we would much have preferred not to see. But let us keep this in perspective. Even the Europeans themselves play down the extent of the promise, and there was annoyance in Brussels at Spain’s eleventh-hour brinksmanship over Gibraltar which put everything at risk after months of tough negotiation.

The EU has given Spain a Clause 24-style veto over the second phase of the Brexit negotiations. Spain always had a veto, as does every EU state, because the future arrangements must be agreed by unanimity of the 27. But by trying to hive Gibraltar off from the main UK discussion, the EU is seeking to appease Spain and remove a headache further down the road.

But how significant is this really? Jose María Carrascal, a columnist for the rightwing Spanish newspaper ABC whose obsession with Gibraltar spans decades, summed it up: “This is a Pyrrhic victory for Spain.”

Of the PSOE, he added colourfully: “Not only have they dropped their trousers, they’ve sold themselves for a plate of lentils. Or votes.”

The EU’s commitments to Spain are political in nature. If you want a reminder of how fragile political agreements can be, just look back to the 2006 Cordoba Agreement and how easy it was for Spain, bolstered by EU indifference, to backtrack on what it had signed up to.

The Withdrawal Agreement, conversely, is a legally-binding treaty which covers Gibraltar and, other than setting the framework for departure, commends the UK and EU to negotiate a future relationship too.

The UK and Gibraltar, it is important to note here, do not accept the EU’s position, just as they did not accept the Clause 24 veto in the first phase of the negotiations.

The UK’s interpretation of the forward-looking clause of the agreement, the controversial Article 184, is that it does not set out the territorial scope of any future deal. In other words, it does not automatically include Gibraltar, but neither does it exclude it, or any other part of the UK for that matter. 

And, as a counterbalance to the EU’s political commitment to Spain on Gibraltar, the UK has made its own political declaration.

“We have ensured that Gibraltar is covered by the Withdrawal Agreement and by the Implementation Period,” Prime Minister Theresa May said on Sunday. “Let no-one be in any doubt: for the future partnership the UK will be negotiating for the whole UK family, including Gibraltar.”

We are, in other words, where we always knew we would be. The EU was always going to side with Spain in the process. The UK, after all, is leaving the club. But that does not mean that either the UK or Gibraltar accepts the EU negotiating position for part two of Brexit.

The UK has stood resolutely by Gibraltar up to now. Its commitments to continued market access after Brexit have been vital to maintain confidence in our economy. We must continue to build on that as Britain negotiates trade deals around the world outside the EU.

And we must ensure that this support from the UK remains solid as we move forward. It is vital we guard against any weakening of that position. Our friends in the House of Commons will help us in that endeavour and their support, developed over months of careful, discrete lobbying to explain our position, will be crucial in the days ahead. We will have to step up our lobbying in Brussels too.

There are curves and bumps ahead, to be sure. But for now at least, our exit from the EU is cushioned and we can pause for breath as we prepare for the next round. 

Perhaps the heaviest blow this weekend, however, is to trust. Gibraltar entered this process reluctantly - we voted overwhelmingly to stay, after all - but we have negotiated confidently, constructively and in good faith.

When we say we want good cross-border relations, we mean it. When we say that we want to build a more prosperous future not just for ourselves, but for our neighbours on the other side of the border, we mean that too. When we reach out the hand of friendship, it is a genuine gesture.

But how does one trust a Socialist government who’s public messages on Gibraltar would sit comfortably on the pages of a Partido Popular manifesto?

That is the biggest disappointment of the last few days. Gibraltar will not close the door to dialogue, but regaining trust will be hard.

Pedro Sanchez must understand that our Constitution gives us maximum degree of self governance short of independence, and that nothing will happen on this Rock unless we and our elected representatives allow it to happen.

He and other Spanish politicians must understand too that Gibraltar’s future cannot be negotiated behind our backs. The days of bilateralism are over. Gibraltar sat at all the meetings that negotiated the Gibraltar Protocol in the Withdrawal Agreement, with its own voice and veto. That is how it must be.

Spanish politicians should know too that Spain’s stale sovereignty aspirations over our Rock will get nowhere.

The UK’s double-lock commitment to the people of Gibraltar is unshakeable. But not only that. As the Chief Minister said on Saturday, we, the people of Gibraltar, are the third lock that protects this Rock.

There are tough times ahead and we must prepare for every eventuality, including the potential blow of a hard Brexit if the agreement fails to get through the Commons. Absent a second vote to reverse Brexit altogether, we must be ready to step up contingency planning for a 'no deal' exit.

But on the fundamentals, remember this: Nothing will change here against our wishes.

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