For one of Gibraltar’s biggest Europhiles other than the Attorney General, leaving the EU must be a painful process.
Very rarely do politicians speak with their own feelings, but this must have been the case when Deputy Chief Minister Dr Joseph Garcia called Brexit “the challenge of this generation“.
“In less than three months’ time, barring a major surprise, the United Kingdom and Gibraltar will leave the European Union,” said Dr Garcia in his New Year message, pondering what just three years ago must have sounded unthinkable. “So far, Gibraltar has already overcome a number of challenges in this our collective journey forward. No doubt, there will be more.
“However, we are confident at the same time that Brexit will bring new opportunities and that Gibraltar is ideally placed to capitalise on them. The strength of our people, our resilience, our determination and our resourcefulness will see us through whatever obstacles may be thrown into our path. That is the story of Gibraltar and of the Gibraltarians.”
Resilience was a by-word of this coalition government after the UK and Gibraltar voted to leave the EU on that fateful Thursday 23 June 2016. Despite a strong vote to remain on the Rock, suddenly what was a very secure and comfortable economic future was cast into doubt.
Dr Garcia, who many see more as a matter-of-fact politician than one who would get bombastic about the defence of Gibraltar, then delved into history to warm up his public.
He first touched on the perennial enemy that first created fear of Spain nearly a century ago referring to the “harassment and economic sanctions of General Franco’s failed campaign to bring us to our knees”. The dictator’s legacy was getting the UN behind a Spanish claim to Gibraltar. Respective foreign ministers since his death tried to go further down that road, with the PP’s Margallo causing long frontier delays which the PSOE has since seen off.
“It was an important learning experience for a new generation of Gibraltarians, who have now understood that we must never lower our guard,” said the DCM. “Margallo had confidently predicted that Brexit would see the Spanish flag raised in Gibraltar in a short period of time.
“He said shared sovereignty was the only way forward if we wanted a relationship with the EU. He threatened that, in a Brexit context, all the options were open to Spain, including closing the border completely.
“In addition to this, the infamous Clause 24 pointed to the potential exclusion of Gibraltar from the UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement and from its transitional provisions.”
An insurmountable obstacle was overcome, when almost in the nick of time, the Spanish parliamentary kingmakers PNV changed sides and PSOE came into government. Although pushed to be hard on the Rock, they agreed MOUs to be enacted in conjunction as part of Theresa May’s withdrawal deal which has been met with discord from all sides of the political divide.
“We do not know at this stage whether the Withdrawal Agreement will survive the vote in the UK Parliament,” said Garcia. “We do know, however, that if there is to be a Withdrawal Agreement, then Gibraltar will be a part of it. As we move into 2019, our pledge is to show that same determination to protect our country and to promote our interests.”
Among calls for greater integration it seems the DCM still sees Gibraltar as a country, perhaps now more than ever as it’s interests appear different to those of the UK. Like its historical mother country, it has to be ready for a no-deal Brexit, but he believes that this could give Gibraltar a new economic card, we could exploit in the future
“Every cloud has a silver lining,” said Garcia. “A no deal Brexit in March, for example, may very well mean that Gibraltar remains the only territory in Europe with guaranteed access into the United Kingdom market.
“This was one of the first areas that we secured by working closely with the UK Government and such access applies whether we leave the EU with the Withdrawal Agreement or whether we exit without it.
“The negotiations on our future relationship with the European Union, and indeed that of the United Kingdom itself, will commence when and if the Withdrawal Agreement has been finally ratified by the UK and the EU Parliaments.”
It is unclear what the DCM is saying here, but it seems possible that he is suggesting that Gibraltar becomes the middle-man for territories wishing to deal with the UK. How this would work out would be another matter as while we do have a port, stores are always in short supply. But a politician always needs to be upbeat, not least because elections are coming up this year.
It is also probable that while things could change forever in our relationship with the EU, this could also occur with the UK. It seems obvious that will mean a closeness we might not have seen before, possibly leading to Joe Caruana’s dream – our first parliamentary representative in London.
Those same MOUs with Spain could exist in a No Deal Scenario too, as the PSOE suggested only last week, so all might not be lost either. What is clear is that Brexit is not the end of the road, but just another obstacle on the journey which could even serve to strengthen Gibraltar, if the cards are played correctly.