Clarity on Brexit for now, but the future still hangs in the balance

Jonathan Sacramento - Monday 23rd December

In March last year, for one day, the Commonwealth Flag replaced the EU flag on Gibraltar's flagpoles. It's a sight we will have to get used to as from Friday

For a while it seemed as if dodging the Brexit bullet was a distant possibility. With three extensions, two general elections in the UK and what seemed like a never ending saga of late night voting sessions in the House of Commons to determine what direction the UK would be taking, it’s been a painful and complicated road ridden with uncertainty.

But we’re at the end of the road now. For the 96 percent of Gibraltarians who voted to remain, the 31st of January will come with sadness and regret, tinged with an element of relief that we finally have clarity.

Gibraltar, by virtue of its inclusion in the Withdrawal Agreement, will enjoy all the benefits of the transitional arrangements between the UK and the EU. We’ve avoided a cliff-edge Brexit. This means all the preparations which were being made for a ‘no-deal’ scenario will not be necessary in the near future. These include passport ‘wet-stamping’, international driving permits, multiple-entry visas, border inspection point alternatives for food transportation, private health insurance etc.

But we’re not out of the woods yet. By a long shot.

The transition buys us eleven months’ grace. In that time, the UK will need to negotiate a future relationship with the European Union. Boris Johnson seems confident this is achievable, but former Brexit Minister David Davis was confident in July 2016 that a withdrawal agreement would be ready within two years, and we all know how that turned out.

Talks on a future relationship will involve negotiating a trade deal as well as allowing time for the remaining 27 member states to ratify it. If this seems unlikely, the UK will have to decide by July whether to seek an extension to the transition.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson says all the right things Gibraltarians want to hear. But can he be trusted?

At some point, the issue will turn to Gibraltar. Boris Johnson says, as did Theresa May, that the UK will negotiate as one family, including Gibraltar. Can he be trusted on this? After all, Northern Ireland is part of that UK family too, and if you ask the Democratic Unionist Party if their interests have been protected by the Prime Minister’s withdrawal agreement, they’ll tell you they’ve been thrown under a bus.

The Chief Minister says his Government is prepared for this. In a recent interview on Direct Democracy with GBC, Fabian Picardo said: “I’m very alive to the possibility that the UK might let us down. That’s why it’s my job, if we want to be included in the trade deal, to ensure that we are, and we are not let down… It wouldn’t be the first time in history. We need to work very hard to avoid a repeat of 1987.”

There is one factor which might prove to be important. Nationalistic fervor in Spain over Gibraltar tends to reach its peak at election time. The Vox rhetoric over the Rock is still fresh in our memories, but for the first time in four years, a Spain has been able to form a majority government with a left-wing coalition. The alliance is a fragile one, and rests on a knife edge with just two majority seats, but if it holds, Pedro Sanchez’s stance on Gibraltar is significantly softer than that of the right. Considering the fact that all 27 member states (including Spain) need to ratify any agreement on a future relationship, this semblance of stability might be a determining factor in a future deal Gibraltar can live with.

On Friday at midnight the EU flag will come down on Gibraltar’s flagpoles for the last time. It will be replaced by the Commonwealth Flag. Gibraltarians will ask themselves, what benefits do we derive from our membership of the Commonwealth? After all, India is a member of the Commonwealth, and that doesn’t seem to have helped matters along when trying to apply for an e-visa.

How can Gibraltar benefit from its membership of the Commonwealth?

The answer lies, perhaps, when you peel the layers of the onion. On 5th September 2013, at the height of the six-hour border queues instigated by the then Spanish Foreign Minister, Jose Manuel Garcia Margallo, a delegation from Gibraltar led by Samantha Sacramento attended the 59th Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference in Johannesburg. The assembly voted by majority to back a resolution condemning the harassment of Gibraltarians, and calling on Spain to cease immediately. Malta went further, and called on the EU members of the Commonwealth, namely itself, the UK and Cyprus, to lobby on Gibraltar’s behalf in the European Parliament through their MEPs.

Two days later, on the 7th September, Madrid narrowly lost its bid to host the 2020 games (this summer) to Tokyo. There’s no evidence to suggest the two events were linked, but before he became our man in Brussels, Sir Graham Watson suggested the row over Gibraltar had scuppered the Olympic bid for Madrid.

As the Deputy Chief Minister has said on a number of occasions, life outside the European Union will never be the same as life inside it, but in the absence of the framework we’ve existed within and relied upon since we joined in 1973, perhaps it’s now time to turn to newer (or rather, older) friends and allies.

On Friday 31st January, GBC News will air a special feature-length edition of Newswatch ahead of the lowering of the EU Flag at the frontier. The programme will include interviews with protagonists in Gibraltar, London and Brussels. Live coverage starts at 11pm