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Opinion & Analysis

Where to after December 31?

Jon Nazca/REUTERS

Brexit, an illusory goal pursued by a fringe minority who muscled into the mainstream with talk of EU shackles while ignoring EU gains, is about to become reality.

After four years of political convulsion, the transition period comes to an end on December 31 and the UK will be out of the European Union. And with it, Gibraltar.

On Christmas Eve, as we prepared for a different sort of festive season redefined by Covid-19, the UK and the EU finally hammered out a treaty setting out the framework for their future relationship, a deal that specifically excluded the territory of Gibraltar.

As British citizens, Gibraltarians will have whatever protections are afforded to Britons as individuals.

But with just a few days to go to the end of the year, a deal has yet to be sealed to guarantee the border fluidity that is vital to the economies of Gibraltar and the Campo de Gibraltar alike.

Gibraltar has said it is seeking a Schengen-style arrangement that would allow mobility for people across the border. Even at this stage, however, the detail of what that might mean in practice remains under wraps to protect the integrity of complex ongoing discussions.

As always, we pick up hints through leaks to the Spanish press. There was talk of delegating responsibility for Schengen immigration checks to Frontex officers at the airport and port, of an end to immigration checks at our land border with Spain, of Gibraltarians gaining the right to travel freely throughout the Schengen area.

Later, there was talk that the negotiations had hit a brick wall on Spain’s insistence that its officers take the dominant role on Schengen checks, something unacceptable to Gibraltar’s firm red lines on sovereignty, jurisdiction and control.

It’s all speculation for now, although leaks often point in the right direction.

On the face of it, all three sides want the same thing. A deal that protects the interests of normal people on both sides of the frontier, provides for mobility at the border and enables the creation of an arc of shared economic prosperity between Gibraltar and the Campo.

But irrespective of whether agreement can be reached, the complex situation we find ourselves in opens up deeper issues about what this community wants for its future.

The fundamental dilemma for Gibraltar is that Brexit, at its core, is the opposite of what we voted for in 2016. Ideologically, the UK is now at the other end of the spectrum to where Gibraltar voted to be. We sought to maintain our EU membership and our ability to move freely across the border, something vital to our economic model and our quality of life. In voting for Brexit, the UK sought to divorce from the EU and take back greater control of its borders. How do we square that circle?

Those who fear a wedge is being driven between Gibraltar and the U.K. shouldn’t worry. Gibraltar is British and will remain so for as long as its people want that, and there is no prospect of change in that regard on the horizon. Our institutions, our language, our culture, are deeply rooted in all things British. Our links to the UK and our relationship with the UK Government are stronger now than ever before.

But Brexit represents different things to the UK and to Gibraltar. The UK voted – very narrowly, let’s not forget - to sever ties with the EU. We voted overwhelmingly to remain, conscious of our inescapable geographical reality.
We were ardent Remainers but when the result of the referendum came in, we had little option but to sign up to Brexit as led by another ardent Remainer, Theresa May.

We trumpeted the fact that we were democrats and would respect the vote, all the time hoping that the UK would reverse its direction of travel. Where we could, we vocally championed that outcome. But we did so cautiously because we were wedded to Brexit through our desire to remain British above all. We didn’t like it, but we liked the alternative less. Gibraltar isn’t going to run into Spain’s arms to resolve Brexit.

Now we are left with the hope that a deal for Gibraltar can be reached that is acceptable to all sides, and the stark reality that, in its absence, life is about to change drastically, and not likely for the better.

It seems remarkable that in the 21st century we are having to plan as if we feared a siege. The border won’t close but, without a deal, it will become harder as a matter of course. And this is with a friendly government in Madrid. Were the PP hawk Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo in office now, I dread to think what might be heading our way.

We’re not going to starve. We may have to queue. But perhaps the biggest danger of all is that we turn inwards at a time when we should be looking out to the world, that we become bitter and invest our energy in self-pity instead of working creatively and constructively to turn around a situation that was not of our making.

Which is not to say, of course, that we cannot be rightly angry at the unfairness of a pro-European community being hung out to dry. If the UK and Spain prefer to sit in comfortable spaces rather than put people above all other interests, there is only so much we can do. We will make our frustration known, for whatever that is worth, and carry on as best we can, adapting as needed.

But without a deal for Gibraltar, there is no doubt that, in the short term at least, our future will require tightening of belts and trimming of expectations, if not a full-scale buzzcut.

In time we may thrive outside the EU. Gibraltar has secured continued access to the UK market for financial services, protecting the bulk of its existing business and potentially opening up lucrative new opportunities. The Commonwealth and other global markets may offer scope for business too.

Silver linings of sorts, but no one will ever convince me that we are better off outside the EU than in. And the same applies to the UK.

Brexit was about sovereignty and “taking back control”. In practice though, the reality may prove somewhat different. For individuals in particular, it will mean the loss of the right to travel, work, study and settle freely in the EU’s 27 member states. Citizens are not taking back control. They are losing it.

The UK/EU deal was almost derailed by a row over fisheries, an emotive subject despite the sector contributing just 0.04% of the UK’s gross domestic product. On financial services, which generates a far larger share of the UK’s GDP, Prime Minister Boris Johnson admitted the treaty “perhaps does not go as far as we would like.” And for UK exporters and importers, frictionless trade is about to become stickier and costlier as paperwork increases.

Brexit has even put a question mark over the future of the United Kingdom, pushing Northern Ireland closer to Ireland and fuelling Scotland’s drive to independence.

This is where we stand as we head into the new year, caught between a bitterly divided UK driven by goals in many ways at odds with ours, and Spain, which despite positive mood music is a long way from recalibrating its traditional stance on Gibraltar.

Amid that turmoil, we have yet to define clearly what our own aspirations are going forward.

When we think about identity, the starting point is very often what we do not want to be, what we are not. I am not Spanish and have no desire to be Spanish. I am British, but I am not English. But Brexit is forcing us to think deeply about our relationship with the UK. Because whatever I am, I am not Boris Johnson and his merry men, I am not the yah-boo, brash Britain that Brexit has unleashed and which half the country abhors.

Brexit, to quote the Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole, “built a bridge between the have-nots and the have-yachts”, but the Frankenstein that emerged has little appeal. I cringe when I look at much of what Britain has become in the past four years. I suspect I am not alone in that. And while our Britishness is not in question, I want to know where we are going in this post-Brexit landscape devoid of recognisable landmarks and waypoints. What do we want for ourselves in 10, 20, 30 years’ time? What are our options? And how do we get there?

Deal or no deal for Gibraltar, that is a fundamental debate to be had in 2021.