Gibraltar’s constructive engagement with the UK on Brexit has been “reasonably fruitful” so far, but the Rock must “remain vigilant” as withdrawal negotiations with the EU move into the next phase.
That was the message last night from Lord Boswell of Aynho, the chairman of the influential EU Select Committee in the House of Lords who is currently on a short fact-finding visit to Gibraltar.
Lord Boswell, together with two other peers on the committee, will meet with government officials, MPs and representatives of civil society to sample the mood on the ground in Gibraltar.
The visit comes a year after the committee published a detailed report on Gibraltar in which it said the UK Government had “a moral duty” to stand up for the Rock against the backdrop of Brexit.
Lord Boswell acknowledged the close working relationship between the UK and Gibraltar government though the Joint Ministerial Council on Brexit, highlighting the recent agreements on UK market access and the ongoing dialogue to build on them.
“It’s really important that people don’t think they’re being overlooked and that they aren’t overlooked,” he said. “That’s where the moral duty comes in.”
He said the discussions under the JMC had proved a “reasonably fruitful process” so far, but struck a note of caution too.
“At the moment it’s alright, but you need to be vigilant,” Lord Boswell told the Chronicle shortly after arriving in Gibraltar yesterday evening.
“That’s the message I get from the Gibraltar Government as well.”
Despite the detailed report prepared by the committee last year, this is Lord Boswell’s first visit to Gibraltar.
“We wanted to talk to people, see what was on their minds,” he said.
“You really can’t substitute having that experience.”
In their report last year, the peers stressed their unequivocal backing for the UK Government’s double-lock sovereignty commitment to Gibraltar.
Yesterday Lord Boswell said that was a position that enjoyed solid cross-party support across Westminster.
And in common with the Gibraltar Government and UK officials, he acknowledged a change of stance in Madrid, adding that he was keen to sample views of people in Gibraltar on this issue.
“It’s a very far and critically-different view from rehashing or reviving the sovereignty issue,” he said of the latest statements from Madrid.
That very same issue was highlighted by Chief Minister Fabian Picardo during a dinner at the Caleta Hotel last night for the visiting delegation from the House of Lords.
Mr Picardo highlighted the UK’s sovereignty commitment and the progress made with bilateral negotiations with the UK.
“I think it is worth being explicit and making clear that there are no circumstances in which the outcome of the Brexit negotiations will lead to any dilution of the British sovereignty of Gibraltar,” Mr Picardo said.
“It just isn’t going to happen.”
“And I am pleased to see that the position of the Government of Spain has, in some respects, been much more measured and mature than the fantastical position exposed by some academics.”
Mr Picardo said the current Spanish Foreign Minister, Alfonso Dastis, had “clearly and rightly” understood that Gibraltar, the UK and Spain had “a common responsibility” to ensure that the lives of the people who cross the frontier between Gibraltar and Spain should not be in any way disadvantaged by Brexit.
“Sr Dastis has also explicitly stated that the recovery of the sovereignty of Gibraltar is an objective which Spain will not renounce, but also one which is not being pursued as part of the Brexit negotiations,” he added.
“I welcome both those sets of statements by the Spanish Government.”
“That is a good basis on which to consider how best to achieve the objective I have repeatedly stated should be our joint endeavour: How to use Brexit to create a rainbow of opportunities that will enhance the wealth created in Gibraltar in a manner that is designed to further lap all parts of the shore of the Bay of Gibraltar.”
The Chief Minister told guests at the dinner that Brexit offered an opportunity to “break the stalemate” that has seen repeated generations of politicians in Gibraltar and the Campo struggle to tap opportunities for cross-border economic and social development.
“The drama of Brexit can provide the backdrop on which the stage could be set for cooperation that has been within our grasp before but which we have never been able to see through,” he said.
Mr Picardo added, though, that the threat of a Spanish veto over the application of a transitional deal to Gibraltar would achieve nothing.
“Threatening Gibraltar has, in fact, never achieved anything,” he said.
“Indeed, threatening Gibraltar is to threaten the people of the Campo as much as it is to threaten the Gibraltarians.”
“And so, although I have welcomed Snr Dastis’ position on continued frontier fluidity and his realism on the issue of Spain’s claims to our land, I entirely reject the notion that Gibraltar should be excluded from the agreements on withdrawal, transition or future trade.”
“An orderly and timely arrangement for withdrawal and future cooperation is as much in the interests of the 10,500 European citizens who come to work in Gibraltar each day, 8,000 of them Spanish.”
Lord Boswell also reflected on the complexity of the wider Brexit negotiations between the UK and the EU 27.
Last December, the EU Select Committee published a report that concluded that a ‘no deal’ Brexit could have serious adverse consequences for the UK economy.
Yesterday Lord Boswell said that if negotiations with the EU 27 broke down in acrimony, “you have got serious problems all around…”
Having chaired various inquiries into different aspects of Brexit, Lord Boswell left no doubt too of the complexity and challenge of the withdrawal as a whole.
“The analogy that I use is that it’s a bit like a Russian Matryoshka doll,” he told the Chronicle.
“You take one layer off and then suddenly find that there’s another set of interactions.”
Lord Boswell also played down any prospect of Brexit actually being stopped.
“I think the British people have made a decision,” he said.
“It’s not one that is very widely favoured here and of course it was on a small margin, but it’s quite difficult to see that decision being reversed.”
The big question, however, remained this: “How are we going to get to some kind of arrangement that we can all live with?”