Deputy Chief Minister Dr Joseph Garcia will deliver his first address to the UN Fourth Committee in New York today, stepping in for Chief Minister Fabian Picardo who had to cancel the second of his annual trips across the Atlantic in order to attend meetings on Gibraltar’s post-Brexit future.
This is the first time in 15 years that Mr Picardo has missed a session of the Fourth Committee on decolonisation and the first occasion since becoming Chief Minister that he will not address it in person.
It is also a first for Dr Garcia, who has attended as many sessions as Mr Picardo but has never addressed the UN himself.
The changes to the Chief Minister’s diary have had a knock-on impact on other ministers too.
The Minister for Housing and Equality, Samantha Sacramento, will travel to Glasgow to represent the Gibraltar Government at the annual conference of the Scottish National Party, while Dr John Cortes will act as Chief Minister until Mr Picardo’s return.
“The ability of the government to redeploy its ministers to different tasks in the wider interests of Gibraltar shows the depth of strength and experience at the disposal of our wider national interest,” said Mr Picardo, who flew to London yesterday.
“It is important I continue the work we are doing in the context of the Brexit negotiations and I know that Gibraltar’s representation is in safe, able and extremely competent hands in Deputy Chief Minister, Dr Joseph Garcia.”
“I will look forward to following his address on Tuesday evening.”
Mr Picardo, who was engaged in Brexit-related meetings through the weekend, had been due to attend the UN meeting as late as Sunday morning, before finally redrafting his travel plans.
The last-minute diary changes underline the intensity of Brexit discussions as the deadline for an agreement between the UK and the EU looms.
Prime Minister Theresa May is braced for another week of Brexit battles as she faces flashpoints with both Brussels and hardline Tory MPs.
Time is running out for London and Brussels to strike a deal as EU leaders insist substantive progress must have been made by a leaders’ summit on October 17 for the bloc to agree a further Brexit gathering in November.
Despite key EU leaders sounding more upbeat at the prospects of a deal in recent days, Brussels appears set to reject key aspects of Mrs May’s Chequers proposals on Wednesday.
However, it was reported that Mrs May hopes to break the deadlock over the Irish border issue by keeping the EU’s present customs arrangements beyond when the transition period is due to end in December 2020.
Discussions between Gibraltar, the UK and Spain on how the Rock fits into the wider withdrawal and transition agreement continue in parallel to the wider Brexit negotiations.
Mr Picardo said talks were unfolding round-the-clock in face-to-face meetings in different locations, as well as via electronic means.
Few details of the substance of the talks have been confirmed formally, despite repeated assurances that progress is good.
Speaking in Madrid last week, the UK’s de facto deputy Prime Minister, David Lidington, signalled that an agreement was “almost there”.
Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell has stated on several occasions that Spain wants an agreement on Gibraltar to the “the first step, not the last hurdle” on the road to Brexit. Last week, his state secretary for Europe, Marcos Arguiriano, said negotiations were “95% there”.
Mr Picardo has also expressed optimism that agreement will be reached to ensure Gibraltar’s inclusion in withdrawal and transition arrangements to avoid a cliff-edge Brexit at the end of March next year.
The Chief Minister has warned, however, that Gibraltar will not be pressured at the last minute into accepting a deal that in any way infringes on its sovereignty red lines, now or in the future.
It is against this backdrop of intense diplomacy and negotiation that Dr Garcia, accompanied by Attorney General Michael Llamas, QC, will address the UN committee today.
His speech will invariably set out Gibraltar’s position on sovereignty in clear and unequivocal terms, underlining this community’s right to self-determination while also updating the committee on the latest developments in respect of Brexit.
But Dr Garcia’s address will also likely be couched in neutral language to avoid adding unnecessary tension to the already-complicated Brexit process.
All eyes too will be on the Spanish contribution to the UN Fourth Committee, both in terms of substance and tone.
Spain has in the past used this forum to set out its position on Gibraltar in firm terms, including the 2016 joint sovereignty proposal tabled in the wake of the EU referendum vote where the UK chose to leave the bloc.
But in a recent address to the UN General Assembly, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez underlined his Socialist government’s hope to used Brexit as an opportunity to unlock “prosperity and benefits” for Gibraltar and the neighbouring Campo de Gibraltar.
Whereas in previous years Spanish prime ministers have used strident language to describe Gibraltar as an “anachronism” that breaks up Spain’s territorial integrity, Mr Sanchez avoided any explicit reference to sovereignty.
“In respect of Gibraltar, the Spanish position is well known and is in line with UN doctrine and is well known by the United Nations’ General Assembly,” Mr Sánchez said at the time.
“The United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union entails too the withdrawal of Gibraltar from the European Union.”
“My wish, as [Prime Minister of the] the Government of Spain, is that we make use of this historic situation so that the new relationship established between the United Kingdom and the European Union, and which inevitably has to go through Spain, creates prosperity and benefits for all of the region, the Gibraltarians and obviously the wider area of the Campo de Gibraltar.”
As well as addressing the UN committee, Dr Garcia will also cover other engagements at which the Chief Minister was due to speak.
He will then fly to London on Wednesday to join Mr Picardo and Gibraltar’s Brexit team.
The Self Determination for Gibraltar Group is also due to address the UN Fourth Committee at today’s session in New York.
And in yet another development in New York, the UN last week announced a change in the chair of the Fourth Committee.
Dee Maxwell Saah Kemayah Sr was elected chairman of the committee on October 4, succeeding Lewis Garseedah Brown II, his predecessor as Permanent Representative of Liberia, who was elected Chair on June 5, but has since resigned.