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Opinion & Analysis

Treaty or no 'Gibexit' treaty?

Photo by Eyleen Gomez

by Robert Vasquez

“Shared prosperity”, between Gibraltar and the immediate Spanish vicinity, is the buzz-phrase, used by the UK, Gibraltar, and Spain, as one major objective of a UK-EU ‘Gibexit’ treaty being negotiated now. It is important, therefore, for all not to lose sight of the need for prosperity, to allow for it to be shared.

The EU mandate, and delays in achieving agreement or any announced progress, indicate, however, the EU’s lack of understanding of the prosperity needed to benefit both sides of the border. Although agreement to extend the time allocated for negotiations to reach a treaty, taken together with recent comments (in this newspaper), by H.E. the Governor, Sir David Steel, show that hope persists.

If a treaty is announced, it is crucial that there should not be a knee-jerk reaction against it, but that it should be considered carefully and holistically, remembering the time and undoubted care taken to negotiate it. We must also maintain the crucial and ingrained self-confidence that we have in our remaining ‘British’, and which we kept throughout our membership of the EU.

Additionally, the deficiencies that exist in our so-called democracy and governance have come to the fore during these negotiations, which, not least, involve two political leaders and two unelected officeholders, none of them having authority from our Parliament.

‘SHARED PROSPERITY’

It is Gibraltar that is the major catalyst for the prosperity that allows for sharing; Gibraltar and its differences, as measured in sovereignty, political, financial, and economic terms. The EU is designed to eliminate, or at least diminish, differences of those types between member nations. The competing forces are obvious. Those were emphasised when the EU published its mandate.

Sharing prosperity is not new; in recent times it has been going on for decades, ever since the full opening of the border in 1985. Examples are, the employment of large numbers of Spanish nationals in Gibraltar, who take their wages to spend in Spain; the rental of homes in Spain by workers of all nationalities employed in Gibraltar, who also spend their ‘Gibraltar’ earnings there; the homes bought by Gibraltarians in Spain; and the shopping by many Gibraltarians in Spain.

The EU mandate, covering the negotiations over Gibraltar, failed to recognise that need of ‘difference’, which is what benefits the economies on both sides of the border, as shown by the examples given. In that sense, that mandate provided little basis on which to reach a treaty between the UK and the EU over Gibraltar.

Yet hope springs eternal, as negotiating deadlines have been extended to allow for talks beyond the yearend deadline.

EU IMPOSSIBLE MANDATE

The lack of the EU’s consideration of the UK/Gibraltar-Spain framework was a slap in the face to its member state, Spain. So much so, that we have, for the first time in history, the UK, Spain, and Gibraltar arguing on the same side in the face of the EU.

Gibraltar reacted by the CM saying, “the mandate may, unfortunately, not form the basis for the negotiation of an agreement on a UK treaty with the EU.”

The UK’s then Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab said “The Commission’s proposed mandate … directly conflicts with [the] Framework … It seeks to undermine the UK’s sovereignty over Gibraltar, and that cannot form a basis of negotiations.”

NEGOTIATIONS CONTINUE

Despite the UK’s and Gibraltar’s initial reaction to the EU mandate, negotiations continued, signalling that some advances must be being made; talks will go on, at least, to the 31st March 2022. In that context a hint of the possibility of a shift by the EU comes from the Governor.

He emphasised that both the UK and Spain maintain their respective positions on sovereignty, and the novelty that all, including Gibraltar, are working together to achieve an EU ‘deal’. He goes on to encourage the EU to be flexible in a quest to find “a novel and contentious new rule for Gibraltar.”

He then suggests, “Because out of fluidity falls everything else. If you get mobility at the border, you get economic success. You get social wellbeing, and you get shared prosperity.” That fluidity may be the foundation, but not the be all and end all necessary for prosperity, as he went on to say, other aspects “… do not fall into insignificance…”, although, in his eyes, are “…far less of a priority.”

The importance of “other aspects” however should not be diminished. It is specifically those which define Gibraltar’s distinctiveness. It is precisely that uniqueness that underlies and is the foundation of prosperity; the prosperity that all three, UK/Gibraltar and Spain, talk of sharing.

IS GIBEXIT DEADLINE 31st MARCH 2022?

Spanish Foreign Secretary, Jose Manuel Albares, has indicated there is a limit to how long talks with the EU can continue. In mid-December he said that negotiations could not go on forever, despite adding, “there’s no deadline by which to reach an agreement.”
The UK Foreign Secretary was more precise, suggesting, at that time, that the 31st March 2022 may be an end date.

A DIFFICULT PLACE

It is a difficult place for Chief Minister Fabian Picardo to find himself.

On the one hand, deciding what level of agreement can be made with the EU, which will not be seen to make inroads into sovereignty, jurisdiction and control.

On the other, walking away from the negotiating table with ‘no deal’, and having to see Gibraltar through the economic and practical effects that will bring. Those are difficulties that will see few people and businesses untouched, at a local level, let alone ‘shared prosperity’ hugely eroded.

But Mr. Picardo, from a political perspective, and to safeguard Gibraltar’s fundamentals, must take care that any ‘deal’ will not itself undermine Gibraltar’s economy. If Gibraltar’s economy is weakened the promise of ‘shared prosperity’ will fail. Further, a ‘deal’ will be seen by many here as having little or no positive effect.

Spain seems to see and bear that consideration in mind. However, the EU, importantly, as the Governor indicated, must open its eyes and mind to avoiding terms in any treaty that would lead to a downward spiral in Gibraltar’s economy.

‘Shared prosperity’ is only possible if the economic engine, that is Gibraltar, is allowed to continue functioning. If it is not, both sides of the frontier will suffer. It is over the coming first quarter of 2022 that any shift in the EU’s position, to allow for that prosperity to continue, might be seen.

If the EU does not shift, ‘no deal’ may become the better of two bad options., because whatever the bad effects that outcome will have on Gibraltar, which will be huge, the consequences will be more direct on a smaller number of people, and so, whilst massively difficult, more capable of resolution. That in the context that a ‘deal’ will be a compromise arrangement, which will likely include some concession, and so have some, albeit smaller, impact on our, and the hinterland’s, current wellbeing.

DEMOCRACY NEEDS REVIVAL

Brexit, leading to the Gibexit talks, have shown up massive deficiencies in the democracy and governance of Gibraltar.

The Chief Minister has admitted that huge areas of government are abandoned. He should be reminded that only two ministers are engaged in Gibexit. There are many more. What are they doing? That deficiency in our system of government has become more obvious.

Our electoral and parliamentary systems need huge reform. They need improvement to enhance our democracy to encourage that we get the best government that electoral and constitutional systems can provide.

Our current electoral system fails to elect adequate persons to govern us. Our current parliamentary system does not allow for proper oversight of government or separation of powers.

Let those who are elected see the harm being done to Gibraltar by our deficient systems. All have promised reforms in their manifestos, none have delivered.

Gibraltar will face huge changes and difficulties at final Gibexit, whether there is a ‘deal’ or ‘no deal’. Let us show maturity by reforms that will allow those difficulties to be faced and overcome by collective efforts, not just the self-belief of one individual, from time to time, who is Chief Minister.

AN HISTORICAL MOMENT

The Governor also said, that if a treaty can be agreed, it will be “one of the most significant moments in Gibraltar’s history.” Perhaps, he did not go far enough, not achieving a treaty will be equally substantial.

The first quarter of 2022 is a pivotal time. It will define the direction Gibraltar will take for decades, if not longer.

HUGE RESPONSIBILITY ON A FEW

Mr. Picardo, are you sure that the limited number of people that you have engaged in the process can see such a huge responsibility through? The eyes of the whole of Gibraltar are on you, and those three other persons, the Deputy Chief Minister, the Attorney General, and the Financial Secretary, the latter two not being elected.

I, and surely all Gibraltar, wish them all well, I, and surely all Gibraltar, seek nothing more than they achieve what is best for us.

I make no judgment now, nor should any of us. There is not enough information in the public arena from which I, or anyone, can make a judgment yet, but those negotiating should all be prepared for the day when a public verdict will be inevitable.

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

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