Parliament last night debated landmark legislation that will ensure the integrity of Gibraltar’s legal system as it leaves the European Union along with the UK.
During an intense five-hour session, feisty exchanges across the floor put a spotlight on the stark political differences between the Gibraltar Government and the GSD Opposition over Brexit.
The EU Withdrawal Bill passed the first two stages of the parliamentary legislative process by government majority and with the backing of Independent MP Marlene Hassan Nahon following a lengthy and pragmatic debate before the House that drew interventions from the vast majority of members.
The GSD voted against the Bill but, in a highly unusual move, asked to defer the third and final committee stage to another session of parliament, meaning the legislation has not yet been passed.
Setting out his analysis of the Bill and his explanation of the technical aspects of it, Deputy Chief Minister Dr Joseph Garcia, said the legislation provides the legal cover for an organised departure from the EU.
It will also provide legal cover for a no-deal Brexit, he explained.
“This is an essential component of the legal framework that Gibraltar has to put in place to provide for an orderly departure from the European Union,” Dr Garcia said.
The GSD collectively opted to vote against the ‘historic and complex’ piece of legislation, despite supporting all the logistical arrangements contained within it, based on a narrow point concerning references to the withdrawal agreement.
The Leader of the Opposition, Elliott Phillips, said: “It seems clear that this Bill will in effect by a side-wind, introduce into Gibraltar law references to the Withdrawal Agreement and via it the Protocol on Gibraltar and contemplate mechanisms to implement the Memoranda of Understanding.”
And, setting out the party’s longstanding stance on the issue, he insisted that the Gibraltar Protocol and MoUs seen as a whole “are a bad set of agreements for Gibraltar”.
“As such we cannot support the Bill as presently drafted,” he added.
Mr Philips told the House that this need not have happened because the Opposition, during the course of Monday’s Brexit Select Committee, indicated to the Government that if it was prepared to hive off the Withdrawal Agreement references into separate legislation then it could consider a different position.
Additionally, he repeated the GSD’s view that the MoUs allow encroachments into Gibraltar’s domestic affairs by Spain in relation to matters concerning waters, the environment, fishing and tobacco.
“The MoUs represent an abandonment of the significant gains achieved by Sir Peter Caruana and the GSD in Government,” Mr Phillips said.
“Under the GSLP we have seen a return to bilateralism, Spain has secured full protection for their workers and we have achieved nothing permanent in exchange.”
Echoing this, GSD MP Daniel Feetham said the Opposition supported 99% of the Bill, and that with those references hived off it would guarantee the unanimous support from the House.
The Chief Minister, Fabian Picardo, lambasted the GSD for repeating the same “nonsense” arguments he has had to respond to in an attempt to disquiet in the past.
“I wish he would give me a good argument to have to wrestle with, not a nonsense argument to wrestle with,” he said.
“Spain has not achieved anything permanent that we have not also achieved in a permanent way,” Mr Picardo told the House.
In reference to GSD suggestions that the Government has ceded control to Spain, Mr Picardo said the agreements were reciprocal.
If the GSD’s analysis was correct, it would mean that Gibraltar had “achieved equal control” over the Campo area, something which was not the case.
He not too that Sir Peter had himself acknowledged that the Brexit negotiations were vastly different to the trilateral talks, which had resulted in a political agreement, not a treaty as is being negotiated in the withdrawal process.
Sir Joe Bossano, the Minister for Economic Development, also poured scorn on the GSD for attempting to portray themselves as the “hardliners now in dealing with Spain.”
The reality of the situation is, he said, that Gibraltar needs to be where the UK is.
“It’s not a question of whether we are in the European Union or out of the European Union, it’s that we cannot afford to be out if they are in or in if they are out,” Sir Joe said.
“Because the only protection, and it hasn’t been a very strong one, but the only one that we had in the EU has been the UK protection.”
And on the GSD’s claims that the withdrawal agreement handed Spain a say in Gibraltar’s affairs, he added: “If they take an inch at the frontier before we know where we are they’ll be in the lighthouse. That’s always been the view of the vast majority of us having dealt with them for years.”
“I can assure the honourable member opposite that if his concern in not supporting this Bill is that we’ve gone soft on Spain, then he can go to bed to sleep tonight without any worries. That is not going to happen.”
During other interventions, GSD MP’s Roy Clinton and Trevor Hammond quizzed Mr Picardo about the tax deal that forms part of the withdrawal agreement but which has not yet been published.
Responding to Mr Hammond, the Chief Minister said the tax treaty was not yet finalised but that the government would grant Opposition MPs on the Brexit select committee sight of the latest draft.
For her part, Independent MP Marlene Hassan Nahon was critical of the GSD for “nit picking” over a technical piece of legislation and urged all MPs to adopt a unified stance on Brexit.
In summing up after the numerous interventions, Dr Garcia said the GSD appeared to have misunderstood the nature of the Bill they were debating, given that the legislation was about ensuring legal continuity, not about ratifying the Withdrawal Agreement.