by Damon Bossino
This paper’s call for a ‘Rock-solid commitment’ from the UK that it will include Gibraltar in any future trade deal with the EU in its editor’s opinion piece of 3rd April is highly pertinent. In all the media frenzy of recent days I am not sure that that clear and solid commitment has been forthcoming.
The effect of clause 22 of the EU’s negotiating guidelines is that the remaining member states and the UK now know, way before any substantive negotiations have even begun, that if a deal is struck there need not be an 11th hour upset on account of Gibraltar. The upset has, in some measure, already happened. The effect of Clause 22 is its potential for obviating the risk of the Gibraltar issue being a stumbling block to any deal between the EU and the UK. The guidelines therefore make as much sense to Spain as they do to the rest of the EU. The main concern for us (if that’s possible) is that it also makes sense to the UK.
British sovereignty re-affirmed
The shock of receiving the news on 31st March about the terms of the draft guidelines soon morphed into frustration at what I saw as a muddying of the waters on the sovereignty debate. Don’t get me wrong I welcome the constant re-affirmation of the UK government’s commitment to the double-lock and more importantly the vocal support we have had from most of the British press. Sovereignty will become the issue in the event that we are left out in the cold subject to a bilateral arrangement in relation to Gibraltar between the UK and Spain. The first question I was asked by Susanna Griso of Antenna 3’s ‘Espejo Publico’ last Monday morning centred on the furore prompted by Lord Howard’s statements the previous day giving a further opportunity to set out our case on sovereignty. My answer echoed the sentiments I expressed in my recently published letter in the Times, and that is that the British government will show resolve in ensuring that there is no usurping of British sovereignty. I wrote this on the back of Lord Howard’s widely reported statements. The elephant in the room, ie whether we will be included in any commercial deal remains, in my mind, unresolved.
Davis’ telephone assurances not enough
The Chief Minister said on GBC last week that the effect of what Mr Davis, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, had told him was that the UK government was ‘committing itself not to do deals which exclude Gibraltar going forward’. A similar point was repeated in an interview he gave El Pais last Saturday. This is much too important an issue to be settled on the basis of a telephone conversation. Gibraltar requires the peace of mind that the assurance is written in stone. We need this said in public and from the despatch box preferably.
That there will be much going on behind the scenes is understood, but if the British government is being so forthright and open about sovereignty why are they not being equally bullish about keeping us in a post exit deal? With press reports emerging that the failure by the Prime Minister to mention Gibraltar in the Article 50 triggering letter was not so much the result of a strategic decision agreed with our government but taken despite their heavy lobbying I start to worry.
Theresa May remains silent
It is noteworthy also that in the same week as the assurances were given by Mr Davis, nothing to the same effect was said by Theresa May following her meeting with Mr Tusk last Thursday. The language is now in terms of the ‘best possible deal’ for Gibraltar. What is ‘possible’ is not only wholly subjective but actually very concerning. What does that statement mean by way of an assurance for us? Note also that a distinction is drawn between Gibraltar and the UK. The ‘best possible’ deal for Gibraltar may be something completely different to the ‘best possible’ deal for the UK.
Despite all the bombastic statements on the inviolability of British sovereignty; the references to the Falklands war; the floodlit Rock (with the security concerns which that raises given the government’s distancing, but that is a different issue) are we sure that, two years down the line after tortious and complicated negotiations, a British government will scupper a good or any deal with the EU in deference to us? This is why we should know, with clarity and transparency, what the position is sooner rather than later.
If the end-game is as reflected in the guidelines, sovereignty will undoubtedly be the issue. The nightmarish scenario is not only that Spain will hold the lock to our continued access to the EU single market but the further lock to the UK-EU deal. Talk about double-lock in the wrong hands!
As someone told me recently – ‘yes, we could be British and bankrupt!’
Am I being cynical? Yes I am. The government has stated it will keep a cynical eye on developments. So they should.
Damon Bossino is a barrister and former MP. He was also deputy leader of the GSD.