The issue is the border
When it comes to Brexit, there is one challenge facing Gibraltar that overrides everything else: the border.
Theresa May’s speech this week set out 12 key goals that Britain will focus on in forthcoming negotiations with the EU, many of them important to Gibraltar.
Britain will leave the single market, while seeking as much access as possible within the framework of a new “comprehensive trade deal”. It is a step toward a hard Brexit but a trade deal with the EU could also open opportunities Gibraltar, whose economy in any event relies primarily on market access to the UK.
Mrs May’s commitment to "a global Britain" that maintains strong links to Europe is also to be welcomed, as is her hope that “the EU should succeed”.
The Prime Minister’s promise of “a smooth, orderly Brexit” that avoids “a cliff-edge for business or a threat to stability” is also good news. So too the fact that a final deal will be put to the vote in both Houses of the British parliament.
As one senior source here put it, the speech was “…helpful in many ways, and there is a lot to work with.”
But that still leaves the border.
The Gibraltar Government has left no doubt as to the potential impact of a hard border on the Rock’s economy. In a briefing paper to the House of Lords last week, it calculated that up to 40% of jobs in sectors such as financial services, online gaming and tourism could be directly hit in the event of problems with border flow.
Mrs May made no mention of Gibraltar in her speech, though she referred to the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. Our situation is obviously different, but there are some parallels too.
The Irish government has already signalled its intention to work closely with the UK to find practical solutions to border issues for the sake of communities on either side.
“Nobody wants to return to the borders of the past, so we will make it a priority to deliver a practical solution as soon as we can,” Mrs May said of the border with Ireland.
In the weeks and months ahead, Britain must also seek similar cooperation from Spain. So too must the remaining EU countries.
The EU must keep in mind that while Gibraltar accepts the result of the UK referendum, we voted overwhelmingly for Remain. It must not allow the border to be used as a political stick.
Chief Minister Fabian Picardo has said Gibraltar can live with a hard border, as long as it is a collaborative one. The key, he told the Lords’ EU Select Committee last month, is “good will and good faith on both sides”.
Can we expect that from Spain? There is no doubt that the new Foreign Minister in Madrid, Alfonso Dastis Quecedo, has changed the tone of discourse when it comes to Gibraltar. He has his eye on the bigger Brexit picture, and not for him his predecessor’s obsession with Gibraltar. Spain’s underlying goal nevertheless appears the same. It sees in Brexit an opportunity to further its sovereignty aspirations over the Rock.
Any attempt to link Brexit to sovereignty will be robustly rejected by Gibraltar and Britain. But once we are out of the EU, only time will tell how flexible the Spanish Government will be on practical issues, particularly at the border. Few here will be holding their breath, but Gibraltar must continue to seek dialogue and cooperation, as it has always done.
Last December the European Commission’s lead Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, said Brexit would have “particular consequences” for the EU’s external borders, adding he was “extremely aware” of this issue.
This week, Mrs May also signalled she was aware of these issues.
“We cannot forget that, as we leave, the United Kingdom will share a land border with the EU, and maintaining that Common Travel Area with the Republic of Ireland will be an important priority for the UK in the talks ahead,” she said.
In fact though, it is two land borders, not one. Britain must not lose sight of that.