Britain and the European Union struck a divorce deal yesterday that paves the way for arduous talks on future trade ties, easing immediate pressure on Prime Minister Theresa May and boosting hopes of an orderly Brexit.
Mrs May rushed to Brussels before dawn to seal a European Commission agreement that “sufficient progress” had been made to begin talks about trade and a two-year Brexit transition period that will start when Britain leaves the EU on March 29, 2019.
Negotiators in London, Brussels and Dublin worked through the night before breaking an impasse over the status of the Irish border, the last major obstacle to the opening of trade talks which EU leaders are due to bless at a summit on December 15.
The breakthrough was hailed by Prime Minister Theresa May as “a hard-won agreement in all our interests”, while European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said it represented “sufficient progress” for negotiations to move on to their second phase.
In dramatic pre-dawn scenes, Mrs May and Brexit Secretary David Davis flew to Brussels to confirm with Mr Juncker the text of a joint document setting out proposals on the key divorce issues of citizens’ rights, the Irish border and Britain’s exit bill.
Although no figure was given officially, reports yesterday suggested the Brexit bill for the UK would be between £35bn and £39bn.
It covers Britain’s share of the EU’s budget up to the end of 2020, as well as outstanding debts and liabilities for items such as the pensions of staff at European institutions. It will be paid over several years and the exact figure is unlikely to be known for some time.
There was no mention of Gibraltar during media briefings or in the 15-page joint document issued yesterday, although much of the detail on citizens’ rights will be directly relevant to British and other EU nationals who are resident in Spain but work in Gibraltar.
The deal also includes an explicit reference to frontier workers, who fall within the scope of the withdrawal agreement.
The announcement in Brussels was cautiously welcomed by the Gibraltar Government, which said it opened scope for a softer Brexit than many were anticipating.
“Subject to the full satisfaction and agreement of the representatives of the people of Northern Ireland, the political agreement outlined today in the Joint Report from the EU/UK negotiators creates opportunities for the future well beyond the options for very hard Brexit that some previously appeared to countenance,” said Chief Minister Fabian Picardo.
“That is potentially, therefore, a very good thing for Gibraltar, but many potential pitfalls remain going forward.”
“We are alive to all the possible eventualities and opportunities that this scenario creates.”
The agreement yesterday also opens the way for the UK and the EU to discuss a transitional agreement to avoid a cliff-edge one the formal two-year negotiating period expires on March 29, 2019.
Such agreement is seen as crucial in order to provide regulatory certainty to businesses while negotiations continue.
The Guardian newspaper, citing anonymous sources, again reported yesterday that Gibraltar could be excluded from any transitional arrangements unless an agreement was first reached by London and Madrid on extending them to the Rock.
That could pitch the EU and Madrid against the UK Government, which has stated that the Brexit deal “must work for Gibraltar too”.
No.6 Convent Place yesterday declined to comment reports based on anonymous sources, but officials conceded they are keeping a very close eye on this issue.
Separately, the UK/Gibraltar Joint Ministerial Council will reconvene on Monday at the Department for Exiting the European Union in London to continue its work on matters relating Gibraltar and the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.
This will be the fifth meeting of the JMC and on this occasion, the Gibraltar delegation will be led by deputy Chief Minister Dr Joseph Garcia, who will be accompanied by the Minister for Commerce, Albert Isola, and by Attorney General Michael Llamas.
This will be the first time that Mr Isola, who is responsible for financial services and online gaming, attends a JMC meeting, reflecting a shift in pace as the UK and Gibraltar governments start to finalise details relating to Gibraltar’s continued access to UK markets.
The UK team will be led by Parliamentary Under Secretary of State Robin Walker and will consist of senior officials from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office the Cabinet Office, the Department for Exiting the EU and the Treasury, among others.
“The discussions are likely to focus on a wide range of issues including a review of positive progress on financial services, online gaming and the Brexit implementation phase,” a spokesman for No.6 Convent Place said.
Keith Azopardi, the newly-elected leader of the GSD, Gibraltar’s main opposition party, said as far as Gibraltar-related Brexit matters were concerned, “it seems to be going painfully slow”.
“Certainly the [Gibraltar] Government may have more visibility about what’s going on because they’re in touch and in discussions with the British Government as I would expect them to be, but from our perspective there is very little visibility about what’s going on and in terms of Gibraltar it’s not obvious what the next phases will mean for us,” he said.
“It’s only then, when it touches upon Gibraltar, that we should become more concerned.”
Reflecting on recent developments on Brexit and Northern Ireland, Mr Azopardi said it underscored the need for the Gibraltar Government to “not just be consulted but to actually participate” in these discussions.
FULL STORY IN OUR PRINT AND E-EDITIONS