Two key organisations representing businesses and workers in Gibraltar said they would welcome greater involvement in contingency planning being undertaken by the Gibraltar Government in the event of a hard Brexit.
The Gibraltar Chamber of Commerce and Unite the Union both welcomed recent positive sentiment about the Rock’s post-Brexit future expressed not just by the Gibraltar Government but by the UK and Spain too.
But they also voiced unease about prospects for Gibraltar should negotiations for the wider deal between the UK and the EU fall through.
The Brexit negotiations are at a critical stage and both the UK and the EU are hopeful that agreement can be reached on the withdrawal deal and transitional arrangements, and that these will apply to Gibraltar.
Yet all sides are also preparing for the possibility of no deal, and it is here where the Chamber and Unite feel the Gibraltar Government could be doing more to engage with them.
Christian Hernandez, the president of the Chamber of Commerce, said part of the difficulty faced by local businesses was that there was still a question mark over what shape the final agreement would take, or even if there would be a deal.
“There are so many balls up in the air that until we see how those balls land, it’s very difficult for us to take pre-emptive action,” he said.
Mr Hernandez said the Chamber had engaged with the government soon after the 2016 referendum to analyse issues such as alternative logistical supply routes in the event of severe disruption at the border.
But there had been little contact after those initial discussions.
“We have raised these issues with government and we’ve been told that government is looking at these things,” he told the Chronicle.
“But government is neither providing us with specific details, nor have they invited the Chamber to be part of that Brexit task force dealing with logistics.”
“You would have thought that if we represent most employers in Gibraltar, we could offer assistance in that respect.”
Christian Duo, the chairman of Unite’s Gibraltar branch, echoed that sentiment.
The union has been very active on Brexit issues, working to raise the profile of Gibraltar’s specific circumstances both in Unite events in the UK but also in Brussels and in Spain, where officials have worked alongside fellow Spanish unions.
Unite has also been working through the Cross-Frontier Group, which brings together organisations in Gibraltar including the Chamber, the Gibraltar Federation of Small Businesses, the GGCA and NASUWT Gibraltar, as well as their Spanish counterparts in the Campo de Gibraltar.
But union bemoans a lack of regular contact with the Gibraltar Government on Brexit-related issues, in particular in any planning for a hard exit.
“We see ourselves as an important stakeholder in all of this, in particular in any contingency planning that needs to take place,” Mr Duo said.
The Gibraltar Government remains confident that a Brexit agreement will be reached and that Gibraltar will be covered by any transitional arrangements.
But officials are nevertheless continuing to prepare for a ‘no deal’ scenario, just in case.
Speaking in the House of Lords last month, Chief Minister Fabian Picardo told the EU Select Committee that Gibraltar would step up its contingency planning as from January 1, 2019, if there was no certainty of a withdrawal agreement by that date.
While he was optimistic about the progress to date on Gibraltar, he left no doubt that his government was also preparing for a scenario where the UK – and by extension, the Rock – crashed out of the EU without a deal to soften the landing.
Mr Picardo said the key date before his government stepped up to the next phase of planning was January 1, adding: “Our civil service and our providers are all geared up to go into the next gear of contingency planning after that date if there isn’t yet a deal that we can all rely on to be in place by the 29th of March.”
Yesterday a spokesman for No.6 Convent Place said the focus remained on securing a deal, but that the key date for contingency planning remained January 1.
At that point, if no agreement had been reached, preparations would be ramped up and organisations such as the Chamber and Unite brought into the equation.
“They will have to be involved if we go into high gear,” the spokesman said.
“We have done the heavy lifting [but] it would have been a waste of their time to involve them before.”
For the Chamber, the key challenge that could arise in the event of a hard Brexit stems from the border.
Mr Hernandez said Gibraltar was “a very versatile economy” that was able to adapt quickly to changing circumstances and was not reliant on a single sector for its success.
“But it’s no secret that we rely on thousands of workers who come into Gibraltar every day to service the various sectors of the Gibraltar economy,” he said.
“If frontier fluidity were to be hindered, then that would have a very negative impact on the Gibraltar economy.”
“If it was severely limited and people were unable to come across to work in Gibraltar, it could lead to a shortage of labour.”
And if there is a need too, for example, to adapt logistics arrangements to avoid the border and import goods by sea, “that inevitably is a more expensive option and it could lead to the cost of goods in Gibraltar being substantially higher.”
The Chamber president nonetheless acknowledged that statements from the Spanish Government suggested it wanted to maintain frontier fluidity and was working to that end.
“I don’t think they’re doing it for the benefit of Gibraltar per se, but I think they realise the huge beneficial impact that Gibraltar has on the Campo de Gibraltar and Andalucia as a whole,” he said.
“At the moment there is certain goodwill in facilitating cross-frontier transit and I think we need for that goodwill to continue.”
“I don’t think anyone envisages a border closure or anything like that and at the moment, the way things are panning out, I don’t think anyone envisages a situation where frontier fluidity is going to be severely restricted either,” he added.
“Certainly all the messages we are getting are positive and the Gibraltar Government is working extremely hard to protect Gibraltar’s position.”
Mr Hernandez was accommodating too of the absence of detailed information about the nature of the discussions relating to Gibraltar and the content of any agreements about the Rock’s post-Brexit status.
He said there were parties in whose interest it was to “torpedo” these “very sensitive and highly charged” discussions.
“I think the far right in Spain would use it as an opportunity to try and accuse all parties of sorts of things,” he said, reflecting some of the recent developments in Spanish politics in relations to Gibraltar.
“So it’s important that the negotiations can be carried out discretely, as has been done, because until we have a complete agreement, we have no agreement.”
There are other concerns too outside of contingency planning, mainly focused on the demands that Brexit has placed on key decision-makers in the Gibraltar Government.
That, both the Chamber and Unite said, meant many domestic issues were being put on hold.
Mr Duo said Unite understood the demands on the government because of Brexit and had offered ample leeway.
“But we are at a critical moment and it’s important that the mechanism for industrial relations works,” he said.
“At the moment the decision-making is centralised in a very small number of ministers and people should be empowered so that some decisions can be taken further down the line.”
Mr Hernandez echoed that view and said the Chief Minister and his Brexit team were doing “a fantastic job” dealing with the Brexit challenge.
But he said a number of domestic issues that impact on commercial activities were going unresolved because of the demands on the government.
Those issues – “a lot of them are not controversial” – could and should be dealt with by other ministers or officials who were not directly involved in the Brexit negotiations and planning, he added.