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Expert View

Gibraltar: Overseas and overlooked in Brexit debate

by David Hannay | 30.08.2018

David Hannay is a member of the House of Lords and former UK ambassador to the EU and UN.

There are two wild cards in the Brexit negotiations, Ireland and Gibraltar. A lot has been said and written about the Irish problem, but next to nothing about Gibraltar.

At least in the case of Ireland there is plenty of common ground between the UK and the other 27 EU countries: the need to avoid new controls on the border between the two parts of the island, the need to respect the provisions of the Good Friday Agreements, and the need to have a legally enforceable backstop in the Withdrawal Agreement. The remaining disagreement is about the wording of the backstop and its possible implementation after the expiry of the transitional period in January 2021.

On Gibraltar there is effectively nothing agreed. Nothing about the situation on the day Gibraltar leaves the EU, which is necessarily the day the UK leaves. Nothing about the situation during the 21-month transitional period. Nothing about Gibraltar’s situation under the new relationship thereafter between the UK and the EU. The only thing that is settled – on the EU’s side – is that any agreement has to be agreed by Spain. And that is hardly a plus.

The fact that, at this fairly late stage in the Brexit negotiations, nothing has been agreed on Gibraltar is troubling enough. The reality of the situation is more so. On the day the UK (and Gibraltar) leave the EU, Gibraltar (like the UK) becomes a third country. The frontier across the isthmus that links Gibraltar to Spain will become an external border of the EU. And since external borders are a matter of national responsibility, this means that the controls on that border are a matter for Spain to decide and are no longer subject to EU rules and jurisdiction, as they have been when it was an internal border between two member states.

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The risks to Gibraltar are evident. That is why it is so important that both the transitional provisions in the Withdrawal Agreement and any subsequent agreement on a new UK/EU relationship spell out how the new situation is to be managed, including how Gibraltar relates to the EU’s single market of which it is currently a part.

And what if there is no deal between the UK and the EU? Well then the risks for Gibraltar are even greater, since the issue becomes a purely bilateral one between Spain and the UK. It was ever thus down the centuries until Spain joined the EU – and that experience was not always a happy one.

The fact of the matter is that Gibraltar’s status within the EU is an ideal one: a combination of British exceptionalism and EU pragmatism. It has underpinned the recent success of Gibraltar’s economy and, in spite of minor irritants over the management of border controls and over maritime and air boundaries, has been greatly to the benefit of both Gibraltar and the UK.

That no doubt is why 96% of Gibraltarians voted to remain in the EU at the 2016 referendum. But that democratic reality seems to cut no ice with the Brexiters who seem to be barely aware that they are throwing Gibraltar under the wheels of a Spanish bus. Yet another of those awkward issues which was barely considered or explained at the time of the referendum.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

8 Responses to “Gibraltar: Overseas and overlooked in Brexit debate”

  • Thank you DH for even daring to mention Gibraltar; the silence has been deafening.
    On ALL sides.
    The UK will regret this massively in future years, but it will regret many many things.

  • Most visitors I meet did not know where Gibraltar is, they used to confuse it with Malta, they also mostly think it is an island. I was one of the 10.000 people who crossed the border daily in both directions for employment and social purposes for years. Gibraltar and nearby La Linea have a symbiotic relationship. Madrid versus London is a different matter. It is complex, but the resounding fact of 96% voting to remain makes the Governmental stance all the more reprehensible.

  • Simple solution. As 96% of Gibraltarians voted to remain in the EU all they need to do is vote to reunite with Spain in a referendum. The trouble is that they always want to have their cake and eat it.

  • This article is extremely one-sided. As a citizen of Gibraltar, there have been several negotiations going on. This article makes it sound like nothing’s happened or very little has. Biased.

  • Not even that Gerard. Spain is offering joint sovereignty with the UK over Gibraltar, which would essentially be a fudge and offer the best of both worlds to the residents of the rock. It’s not in fact so different to the agreement which already allows the Northern Irish to have both British and Irish citizenship yet the UK is not having it.

    Let’s call it sending back their cake and not eating it.

  • No Gerard – we don’t want any of that ‘cake’ because its poisoned. Gibraltar just wants to get on with doing what it does well, operating as a small modern country, respecting people’s rights and being fully compliant with international law.

    Unlike Northern Ireland there is no part of the community itching to join up with the neighbouring state, even the monkeys know that leads nowhere. When Jack Straw visited to suggest it we told him to leave and how. He has not been back.

  • Perhaps when the next referendum comes it will be about severing ties between Gibraltar and the (still-united?) UK? I live in England, but if I lived anywhere else in the UK, I’d bee keen to vote whichever way would get me out from under the yoke of Westminster and its arrogance and incompetence.