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Thinking the unthinkable

Thinking the unthinkable

by David Hughes

Over the years, I’ve usually been happy to share my thoughts with Gibraltar’s newspaper-readers, and grateful to editors who’ve published my writings. Although male lawyers are hardly scarce in Gibraltar’s public and civic life – especially middle-aged ones, as I suppose I must now consider myself – I hope that the views of a Welshman have brought a worthwhile perspective to the public square. But this piece I write at the request of the Chronicle’s editor, he having seen some comments by me on a Facebook thread.

I want to use this piece not to advocate a point of view, to commend or criticise the government or the opposition, but to share a fear. A fear that, being based in the UK, I am perhaps better placed to appreciate than those lucky enough to live in Gibraltar. I fear that I hope with all my heart will not happen. It is not my intention to scaremonger, and certainly not to undermine the Gibraltar government’s efforts to deal with Brexit. My intention is to provoke some thought and some debate about how to plan for the scenario I fear.

I fear that, if Brexit happens, there is a real risk that it will involve the sell-out of Gibraltar. By that, I mean the handing-over of Gibraltar to Spain, without regard for the wishes of you, the Gibraltarians. I realise that UK governments have repeatedly expressed their commitment to Gibraltar. As you’d expect, I’m familiar with the preamble to the Constitution. And I know that Sr Dastis is a big improvement on his predecessor. However, as “hope for the best, prepare for the worst” is always a good maxim, let me explain why I fear that a sell-out may be coming.

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One of the pleasures of life in Cardiff is the proximity of Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre. The outstanding team there includes Richard Wyn Jones, the Centre’s director. Richard is writing a book on the role of English nationalism in contemporary British politics. That may not sound like a riveting read, but only to people who don’t know Richard. When the book comes out, he’d be a great guest at the literary festival. And it may not be immediately apparent why this might lead to Gibraltar being sold out. Let me explain.

I recently went to a lecture that Richard gave, in which he drew attention to an alarming statistic of which I had been unaware. It was this: more than 80% of English based Brexit supporters would think destabilising the Northern Irish peace process a price worth paying for Brexit.

Just let that sink in. For 3 decades, people in part of the United Kingdom were being murdered and maimed in the name of politics. Judges had to live under 24hr armed guard. Police officers had to check under their cars. There was collusion between state forces and terrorists. More than 3,500 people lost their lives, tens of thousands wounded. No sane person could want to risk Northern Ireland’s peace, one would think. Yet a majority, indeed an overwhelming majority, of English Brexit supporters would be wiling to do just that, if it was the price of Brexit.

Let’s think about the Brexit negotiations might look for Gibraltar. Much has been made – I think unfairly – of the EU’s negotiating guidelines and the supposed “veto” they gave to Spain. They gave Spain nothing. They recognised what was obvious – what was in the rules to which the UK had agreed – that any member state can veto a treaty establishing a new relationship between the UK and the EU. Spain could exercise that veto, unless it achieves what it considers satisfaction vis-à-vis Gibraltar. There is no point the EU giving its negotiators guidelines that don’t take into account that fact. Blame Spain, for its undemocratic and anachronistic claim. Blame the UK, for not insisting that the claim be dropped as a condition for agreeing to Spanish entry into the EU, and then for voting for Brexit without caring a jot about Gibraltar. Blame those pro-Brexit MPs who’ll say how loyal they are to Gib when they fly over for National Day, but vote to hand Spain the right to cause unlimited border hassle and lose Gib’s financial services passporting. But don’t blame the EU.

Of course, it is in Spain’s interests, objectively viewed, to have the sort of good neighbourly relations with Gibraltar that most Llanitos would love to see. But no Gibraltarian needs reminding that Spain has not been a good neighbour. Spanish goodwill (and good sense) should not be counted upon.

Let us imagine that the UK has some sort of a deal on the table. Let us then imagine a PP govt in Madrid, looking to please the “a por ellos” voter, says, “No Gib, no deal”. Given that most English Brexit supporters would rather see the return of bombs in Belfast than give up their Brexit, do you really think that those people will defend Gibraltar? That they’ll happily see people in Northern Ireland – including many people loyal to the UK and its crown – die, but that they’d give up a deal for the sake of Gibraltar?

It would, of course, be disgraceful. And it is tempting to think that MPs wouldn’t wear it. But if MPs’ constituents tell them that Gibraltar is a price worth paying, they will make you pay. The UK govt might even spin it so as to try to get some political benefit from a sell-out.

Any deal the UK gets will be worse than its current position. The leavers’ promises were the tricks of a conman. The £350million a week for the NHS hasn’t materialised, the German car makers haven’t bullied Merkel and wonderful (and wonderfully easy) trade deals with the USA or Vanuatu or Swaziland haven’t appeared. There’s no cake and we’re not eating it.

So the leavers will need some ruse to rally support behind their project. One such ruse might be to stir up hatred amongst the people for all things European. The line that “those pesky Europeans are even making us hand over Gibraltar” might well form part of that. Of course, Gibraltar isn’t morally the UK’s to hand over to anyone – it belongs to you, the Gibraltarians. But that is how it might be spun. Given the choice between something of a deal and the cliff-edge no deal, of course the UK (whose PM and leader of the opposition are far less able than the Chief Minister, of that you can be sure) might of course choose suicide. But its government might equally choose to sacrifice Gibraltar, to give itself a chance of survival.

Some of course, may say that they trust Theresa May. To them the answer is, in part, to ask what basis they have for doing so. But the only slightly more serious answer is, that this is a scenario that, however despicable, needs to be planned for. Maybe it is being planned for. What the plan should be is certainly not for me to say. But planning there should be.

It may also be that, in a few years time, this is all just a bad dream. That we find some way to halt this act of national self harm. Farage hinted recently at supporting a second referendum – and if the UK govt didn’t dance to his tune, we wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place. If it happens, Gibraltar needs to make itself part of the debate over here, lobbying not just MPs but the voters directly. But unless and until that happens, Gibraltar needs to plan for, and have a proper debate about, the possibility of sell-out. A debate that recognises the real possibility of betrayal. After all, there’s another saying about planning – “fail to plan, plan to fail”.

David Hughes is a barrister at 30 Park Place Chambers, Cardiff, and a consultant at Phillips Barristers & Solicitors, Gibraltar.

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