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Expert View

More rocks ahead for Gibraltar in Brexit talks

by David Hannay | 25.11.2018

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

The spat over Gibraltar which has filled the airwaves in the last few days was never intended to block agreement on the text of the deal to withdraw from the EU or on the UK’s new relationship with the bloc. First, because Spain was not in a position to block that treaty, which only requires a qualified majority of EU members to sign off on it. But also because the treatment of Gibraltar immediately after the UK leaves the EU, if it does, in March 2019, and throughout the 21-month (or perhaps longer) transition period, had already been settled to the satisfaction of all sides after lengthy Anglo-Spanish discussions which were held in parallel with the Article 50 negotiations.

More likely, the spat occurred for domestic political reasons on the Spanish side – and just remember that we too sometimes do things for similar motives – linked to criticism by the opposition of the minority government having gone soft on Gibraltar.

It would be foolish, however, to think that this episode has no significance for the future negotiations between the UK and the EU. For one thing, in those negotiations Spain does have a veto. That’s because the scope of any deal goes way beyond simple trade matters, which could be settled by a qualified majority, and will not be based on Article 50. But also because some of the most sensitive issues that will arise in the context of Gibraltar will relate to the management of the frontier crossing between Spain and Gibraltar, a frontier which will by then be an external frontier of the EU (Spain) with a third country (the UK, including Gibraltar). The control of the movement of people across such a border remains the responsibility of individual member states, and not of the EU.

Add to this that Gibraltar’s interests will be crucially linked to its future relationship with the EU’s single market, of which it is, to its considerable benefit, currently a part. That will mean going into tricky issues of the future regulatory regime on both sides. So don’t expect those future negotiations to be straightforward or trouble free, even if there was not the risk of the long-running bone of contention over sovereignty being thrown in for good measure.  And recognise that in 2020 Gibraltar considerations will be weighed against the costly alternative of prolonging the transition period rather than the other alternative of the Irish backstop – which would be of no avail to Gibraltar at all.

No doubt as usual the Brexiters will be breathing defiance as those negotiations get under way – after all, it was only a few months ago that Michael Howard was calling for the navy to be sent in. But neither the UK nor Gibraltar will have a strong hand to play – amply demonstrated by the toings and froings of the last few days, which led to the government having to write a letter which reveals the precariousness of Gibraltar’s situation in 2020 when the transition period is drawing to its close.  No amount of huffing and puffing will change that. Nor would it make sense to refuse to discuss all this directly with Spain as well as in the UK-EU negotiations. Better, surely, to build on considerations of mutual interest.

There is, of course, one way of avoiding all these pitfalls and that would be if a referendum were held on the deal Theresa May has struck and a decision were taken for the UK (and Gibraltar) to stay in the EU. Who knows, the Gibraltarians might even top the 96% in favour who voted that way in 2016. And this time the Brexiters might have the grace to recognise the democratic legitimacy of that vote. But don’t hold your breath for them to do that.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

One Response to “More rocks ahead for Gibraltar in Brexit talks”

  • I’ve been saying from the very beginning of this sorry story of self-generated humiliation that Kerensky May would betray Gibraltar. End colonialism! Independence for Gibraltar!