Chief Minister Fabian Picardo insisted last night that Gibraltar was “ready for any eventuality” in the fractured Brexit landscape, even as he gave a ringing endorsement of embattled Prime Minister Theresa May, who he said was “far from hanging from a thread”.
Mrs May came under intense pressure yesterday as critics mauled her draft Withdrawal Agreement for leaving the European Union and several ministers resigned in protest.
After meeting Mrs May in No.10 Downing Street, Mr Picardo defended the Gibraltar Protocol that forms part of the Brexit deal, which he said was better than a ‘no deal’ Brexit both for the UK and for Gibraltar.
And he made clear Mrs May had his full support.
“She’s very much in control of this ship and she knows where she’s taking it,” he told reporters outside No.10 Downing Street.
Mrs May battled throughout Thursday to save the draft divorce deal after her Brexit secretary and other ministers quit in protest and eurosceptic MPs stepped up efforts to topple her.
A day after she announced that her Cabinet had agreed to the terms of the draft deal, Brexit minister Dominic Raab and work and pensions minister Esther McVey resigned.
The Cabinet resignations were followed by several other ministers, while eurosceptics in the Conservative Party said they had submitted letters calling for a no confidence vote in her leadership.
A leadership challenge is triggered if 48 Conservatives write such letters. Mrs May could be toppled if 158 of her 315 lawmakers vote against her.
But the prime minister showed little sign of backing down.
During a three-hour session in the House of Commons, he told MPs: “The choice is clear. We can choose to leave with no deal, we can risk no Brexit at all, or we can choose to unite and support the best deal that can be negotiated.”
And in a press conference last night at No.10 Downing Street, Mrs May appeared determined to push on with her plan despite opponents on both sides of Parliament who said she would never get it through the Commons.
“I believe with every fibre of my being that the course I have set out is the right one for our country and all our people …,” Mrs May told reporters, even while Britain’s opposition Labour Party said the government was “falling apart”.
“I am going to do my job of getting the best deal for Britain.”
Amid tumultuous, frenzied political activity in London, a top-level Gibraltar delegation led by Mr Picardo and Deputy Chief Minister Dr Joseph Garcia remained in London following developments at the Westminster coal face.
Last night Mr Picardo and the Gibraltar team met with Mrs May, the UK’s de facto deputy Prime Minister David Lidington and Europe Minister Sir Alan Duncan, to discuss the Gibraltar Protocol and associated documents.
The Prime Minister and the Chief Minister approved agreements stemming from the Protocol in line with the established constitutional relationship between the UK and Gibraltar as embodied in the 2006 Gibraltar Constitution.
“The Prime Minister and I welcomed the Protocol on Gibraltar, which will give confidence and certainty to individuals and businesses operating in Gibraltar,” he said after the meeting.
“We have agreed that we are confident that the UK, Gibraltar and Spain are now well placed to rapidly conclude Memoranda of Understanding that will address areas of mutual interest and enhance cooperation on citizen’s rights, tobacco, the environment, and police and customs matters, and to agree to conclude a treaty on tax transparency and information exchange.”
“It is clear to me that all parties can and should now move forward in a spirit of dialogue and cooperation to enhance the security and prosperity of Gibraltar and the entire surrounding area.”
Mr Picardo told reporters that despite the febrile atmosphere in Westminster, “it’s not prudent to write off Theresa May”.
“The more the pressure is increased, the cooler this Prime Minister is in dealing with all of the issues that are thrown at her,” he said, underlining Mrs May’s firm defence of Gibraltar throughout the Brexit process.
Outside Downing Street, however, the ultimate outcome of the political drama unfolding in Westminster remained uncertain.
Scenarios include Mrs May’s deal ultimately winning approval; Mrs May losing her job; Britain leaving the bloc with no agreement; or even another referendum.
Mr Picardo told the Chronicle that if the deal was voted down in the House of Commons, the position was not clear as to what would happen.
“It’s not clear whether that will force a renegotiation in Brussels and whether there might be changes to the deal, or whether we move to a ‘no deal’ which is not good for Brussels, any of the member states, the United Kingdom and indeed Gibraltar,” he said.
“Regulated relationships are better unregulated relationships.”
“But we will be ready for any eventuality. We have thought through what the two potential eventualities are on the morning of the 30th of March 2019.”
“We could have a Withdrawal Agreement, and we’ve done what we had to do to form part of it.”
“Or ‘no deal’, and we’ve done what we need to do to ensure that one the morning of the 30th of March, Gibraltar can continues to operate its businesses and, when it comes to the basics, have its people live their lives in the same way as if we continued to be part of the European Union.”
And amid growing calls for a People’s Vote on any final deal, Mr Picardo said Gibraltar, which voted overwhelmingly for Remain in the 2016 referendum, was making the best of a situation it had no desire to be in.
Mr Picardo said that as far back as 2016, he had said that people in the UK and Gibraltar should have a vote on “the reality of what leaving the EU means”.
“I haven’t changed my view on that,” he said, adding that the Gibraltar Protocol would ensure that Gibraltar would be part of any divorce deal and would leave the EU alongside the UK, if and when that happens.
On Thursday, the UK and the EU published the 585-page draft agreement, which sets out a framework for the UK and Gibraltar to leave the EU.
The agreement includes a Protocol on Gibraltar that provides a framework for cooperation with Spain on citizen’s rights, tobacco, the environment, police and customs matters, and taxation.
The Protocol, should the Withdrawal Agreement survive the political backlash in the UK, is without prejudice to core positions on sovereignty.
It also respects Gibraltar’s constitutional relationship with the UK and the competencies and rights set out in the 2006 Constitution.
The detail of how the cooperation will work will be set out in Memorandums of Understanding agreed by Gibraltar, the UK and Spain after months of negotiations.
Those MoUs will be published in coming days.
Reactions in Gibraltar were tempered and opposition politicians were yesterday pouring over the 585-page document and ancillary explanatory statements issued by the UK and Gibraltar governments.
But from the outset, the GSD expressed caution.
”From the Protocol and draft Withdrawal Agreement itself we already have misgivings that this agreement provides very little to Gibraltar in terms of anything enduring or that meets our own objectives to secure actual positive benefits for the people of Gibraltar or our businesses beyond a very short 21 month period,” said GSD Leader Keith Azopardi.
“This is a sticking plaster at best for the period till December 2020.”
That observation drew an immediate response from the Gibraltar Governmenr, which pointed out that this phase had always been about the exit and transitional arrangements, not about the future relationship beyond 2020.
In Spain, the Partido Popular hit out at the Socialist Government of Pedro Sánchez, accusing it of wasting an opportunity to push Spain’s sovereignty aspirations over the Rock.
“The result is disastrous for Spain,” said José Ramón García, the PP’s spokesman for foreign affairs.
“It is one of the most outrageous moves by our foreign affairs department that I can recall.”
“Spain has…voluntarily renounced any hint of a sovereignty claim.”
Marco Aguiriano, the Spanish Government’s state secretary for Europe, said Madrid had negotiated pragmatically to ensure the success of the Withdrawal Agreement, but had not renounced its sovereignty aspirations.
“Of course Spain is going to table the sovereignty question,” Mr Aguiriano told reporters yesterday, adding: “This government is not renouncing Spain’s historical claims.”
“But if the first thing you do is say you’re going to plant the flag on the Rock, they’ll get up and walk away.”
He said the Spanish Government would offer “interesting options” to the people of Gibraltar, whose interests he said were “much closer to Madrid than to London”.
Last night, the Chief Minister sent a clear signal to Madrid on the issue of sovereignty.
“The answer to any proposal for joint sovereignty from Spain is well known and won’t change,” Mr Picardo told the Chronicle.
“If ‘no way Jose’ wasn’t clear enough, I am happy to turn it into ‘no way Marco’.”
“The sooner Spanish diplomacy gets over its medieval sovereignty ambition over our home, the sooner we can start having a mature and modern relationship of friendly neighbours.”