Paddy Ashdown, the highly-respected Liberal Democrat peer who died just before Christmas, had clear views about the madness of Brexit.
In June 2016, a fortnight before the referendum that set the UK – and by extension Gibraltar – on a turbulent two-year course to withdrawal, Lord Ashdown told guests at a dinner in Gibraltar that Brexit would be “an act of historic folly” and would create “terrible suffering” for future generations.
I remember that dinner well because until that night, it was difficult to even entertain the prospect of the UK leaving the EU, impossible to think that Britain, a global leader in pragmatic diplomacy, could do something as stupid as leave the family of European nations which, for all its faults, had replaced centuries of war with peace and shared prosperity. But Lord Ashdown was downbeat. He could see what was coming.
“The things I really love about our country – its trading spirit, the fact that we went out into the world and made things happen, our tolerance and respect for others, our decency and our compromise – all these things are desperately at risk,” Lord Ashdown told dinner guests.
The EU, he said, was “the greatest peace-making institution” the world had ever seen, “…more so than all the aircraft carriers of the United States and of NATO put together.”
Lord Ashdown was speaking from a lifetime of experience. He was a retired Special Forces soldier and diplomat, the former leader of the Liberal Party who had served too as the EU’s special envoy to Bosnia and Herzegovina, recognised for his work helping to bring peace to that region.
In 2016, in the lead-up to the referendum, the EU was surrounded by conflict and turmoil on all its borders, from an aggressive Russia to conflict across the Middle East and upheaval across the Maghreb and down into central Africa. Much the same as today.
“And this is the moment we want to abandon our solidarity with our European neighbours in such a turbulent world, in favour of an illusory sovereignty?” Lord Ashdown asked back then, a rhetorical question that still stands.
“This will be an act of historic folly from which our children and their grandchildren and great places like Gibraltar will suffer terribly.”
“We must make sure, every single one of us, that we do whatever is necessary to make certain that doesn’t happen.”
It was not to be. A fortnight later, the 2016 referendum delivered a narrow victory to Leave. Two years on, as 2018 comes to a close, we are about to step into the unknown.
In the coming days, the House of Commons will again debate Prime Minister Theresa May’s controversial Withdrawal Agreement before voting on the divorce deal. Mrs May is likely to lose that vote, but a large cross-section of MPs have vowed to avoid the trauma of a no-deal Brexit, so the deal may yet survive in the end.
There is, of course, a growing momentum for a second vote, not least given the questions surrounding the way the first referendum was run and financed. But will that momentum gain enough traction to make another vote a reality? One can but hope, but we must also continue to prepare and plan.
Brexit feels like a heavy Levanter hanging over our heads, and there is no sign of a change in the weather just yet. Instead, tough times lie ahead.
In Gibraltar, Chief Minister Fabian Picardo has championed Mrs May’s deal as the best of the two options currently on the table – her deal or no deal. But let us not confuse that with outright support for Brexit. Whatever one thinks of the EU and its support for Spain on Gibraltar – what else was the EU going to do but side with the remaining member? – most of us would happily tick Remain again if we had the chance, the Chief Minister included.
Mr Picardo has made clear from the outset that his top wish for Brexit is that someone, somewhere, presses the stop button and revokes Article 50. Alternatively, he would welcome allowing people another say on this seismic change that will affect generations to come, a view shared by the GSD which has been vocal in calling for a second referendum, even with the very real risk it might deliver another Leave result.
But neither of those options are on the table at the moment. Mrs May’s deal – which would ensure Gibraltar’s inclusion in temporary measures to soften the blow of departure – is the best of a bad set of choices, or so the Chief Minister’s argument goes. If we must leave, then at least let us do so gently and slowly.
There is some positive news in all of this. Early on, Gibraltar was able to secure commitments from the UK to protect market access for our financial services and gaming firms, irrespective of what happens with Brexit. This was a crucial win, given the UK accounts for most of our business within the EU. Protecting that market beyond Brexit has ensured economic stability here over the past two years, despite the upheaval elsewhere. But what happens next? Because even if our companies can sell into Britain, if Brexit sends the UK tumbling, then we will be hit too.
Mr Picardo also has his critics at home, where there is a view the Gibraltar part of the Brexit divorce deal could give Madrid a say in our domestic affairs. The Chief Minister refutes this firmly, and it is hard to believe that Sir Joe Bossano’s GSLP and its Liberal Party partners would negotiate a deal giving Spain any sort of say inside our land or sea borders. But the Brexit deal is multi-layered and complex and for many, the doubts remain. With a general election coming up in 2019, Brexit looks set to become embroiled in the mud of local party politics.
And there are other factors that will complicate the mix even further. The rise of the Right in Spain means Gibraltar will be back in the news and not in a good way. For many Spanish politicians, on both sides of the political spectrum, “Gibraltar Español” is an easy clarion call. Viewed from this side of the border fence, it is a tiresome repetition we have heard time and again over the years. It will get Spain nowhere and on sovereignty at least, we can remain at ease. The double-lock means nothing will change here against our wishes.
But there are less obvious dangers that we should guard against.
If one thing defines this community, it is our ability to coexist with each other, to focus on the things that unite us, not on our differences. This is a community that welcomes, not one that shuns. We seek to open doors, not shut them. We seek to build bridges, not dig trenches. Against the backdrop of Brexit, we must never forget this, particularly as some sectors in Spain ramp up the anti-Gibraltar rhetoric for easy points ahead of municipal and European elections in the spring and a looming Spanish general election beyond that.
We must stand firm, as we have always done, on our red lines. But we should also resist the temptation to flare up at every provocation, or to find scapegoats in those from neighbouring communities who cross the border daily. The Cross-Frontier Group, which brings together labour and business organisations from both sides of the border, was set up during the dark Margallo days to counter precisely the sort of cheap politics that turns people into pawns. Workers, whatever their nationality, are not bargaining chips.
As we head into 2019, there will be much to keep us busy. The year will bring a calendar packed with sporting and cultural events, as well as a painful anniversary marking 50 years since the border closure. But it will be politics that dominates the 12 months ahead and right now the outlook, viewed from any angle, appears bleak.
It is time to tighten belts and steel ourselves for what lies ahead, but also to remember what makes us who we are.
Last year, as Brexit drew closer, Lord Ashdown wrote that Liberal Democrat foreign policy would remain the same inside or out of the EU, guided by one simple principle: “To work as closely as we can with our European neighbours.”
“Because that is the best – indeed the only way – to pursue our nation’s interests in this dangerous, volatile and turbulent age,” he wrote.
“The right reaction to this new context is not to allow ourselves to be broken up and scattered, but to deepen European cooperation and coordination.”
Lord Ashdown had the UK in mind when he wrote those words, but it is good advice even for a small place like Gibraltar.
MAIN PHOTO: Paddy Ashdown addressing guests at a dinner in Gibraltar in June 2016.