Gibraltar has called on the UK to revoke Article 50 and ease political pressure in Westminster after MPs in the House of Commons rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s controversial Brexit divorce deal for a third time on Friday.
Chief Minister Fabian Picardo wrote to the Prime Minister saying that revoking Article 50 would give the UK time and space to consider alternatives to the failed agreement, before returning to put a fresh choice on Brexit to the people in a second referendum.
He was speaking in the wake of dramatic scenes in the House of Commons, where MPs voted by 344 to 286 against the deal as hundreds of protesters staged a noisy demonstration outside on the day when the UK was due to leave the European Union.
Mrs May now has until April 12 to go back to Brussels with new proposals and seek a longer extension to the negotiation process, or see the UK leave without a deal that day.
With a clear majority in the Commons against no-deal, and with MPs once more seizing control of the timetable on Monday, Mrs May said that the UK would have to find “an alternative way forward”.
This was “almost certain” to involve the UK having to stage elections to the European Parliament in May, she said.
Mrs May said that the outcome was “a matter of profound regret”.
European Council president Donald Tusk called an emergency summit of EU leaders in Brussels on April 10 to discuss the implications of the vote.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn called for a general election unless the Prime Minister was willing to find an alternative deal.
And Mrs May – who had promised to step down as Prime Minister if her deal was approved – appeared to hint that this was a possibility, telling MPs: “I fear we are reaching the limits of this process in this House.”
She said: “This House has rejected no deal. It has rejected no Brexit. On Wednesday it rejected all the variations of the deal on the table.”
“And today it has rejected approving the Withdrawal Agreement alone and continuing a process on the future.”
“This Government will continue to press the case for the orderly Brexit that the result of the referendum demands.”
Even before the dust had settled in the immediate wake of the vote, there was wide speculation that Mrs May would seek to bring back her agreement for a fourth vote, possibly as early as next week depending on the outcome of Monday’s debate.
In Gibraltar, however, Mr Picardo wrote to the Prime Minister setting out his government’s position in light of the changed circumstances and the looming April 12 deadline.
He reminded Mrs May that the people of Gibraltar had voted by 96% to remain in the EU but had nonetheless accepted the result of the referendum and had worked with her team to protect Gibraltar’s position in the withdrawal negotiations.
He also underlined the Gibraltar Government’s “serious concern” about the impact of a ‘no deal’ Brexit on the Rock, despite the mitigation measures that are being put in place.
“I told the Prime Minister that, in the circumstances, and whilst we will continue to consider the Withdrawal Agreement as a secure exit route for Gibraltar, given that this has not been endorsed by the House of Commons, the position of Her Majesty’s Government of Gibraltar will have to be to support a revocation of the Article 50 notification in preference to a long extension of membership of the EU or a no-deal departure from the EU,” Mr Picardo said.
“I have confirmed to her that I have signed the petition for the revocation of the Article 50 notification.”
“I told Mrs May that, in the Gibraltar Government’s opinion, a revocation would enable her and the United Kingdom Parliament to determine how to proceed without needing the agreement of the EU Council.”
“Such a move would enable the United Kingdom to be relieved of any pressure of time being applied by the operation of the time limits imposed by the EU.”
“Indeed, the revocation of Article 50 need not be an artifice to move from a route to departure from the EU to remaining – although remaining in the EU remains, in my view, the best option for Gibraltar.”
“In fact, however, revocation can be an opportunity to simply re-group and re-organise leaving the EU, but without the EU enjoying the pressure lever that a timed long extension allows them.”
Mr Picardo told Mrs May that he accepted that revocation “cannot be the democratic end of matters”.
He said he believed there would have to be a further vote on whether to remain in the EU or leave on the basis of Withdrawal Agreement or any other option identified by the UK Parliament.
“In this respect, in my respectful submission, I would consider the most democratic route to a determination of the way forward to be to put the question – now in the stark light of reality – of whether to leave the EU – and how – or otherwise to remain, once again, to the British people in a new referendum,” the Chief Minister told Mrs May in the letter.
“In such a referendum, in support of which over one million people – including many Gibraltarians – marched in London last week, I made the point to Mrs May that I am sure she will agree that the franchise should, rightly, once again include the British people of Gibraltar, given we vote in European elections and participated in the 2016 referendum, and that I would campaign to remain.”
“I also made the point that in the time we have been able to work together on the UK’s departure from the EU, Mrs May and her team have consistently been thoughtful, caring and steadfast when it has come to the wishes and interests of the people of Gibraltar, for which I have thanked her.”
In the light of the vote in Westminster on Friday, the Deputy Chief Minister instructed officials to begin work on the mechanics to hold elections to the European Parliament on May 22, should it become necessary.
Dr Garcia had followed developments in Westminster closely, gathering in the Chief Minister’s office with Mr Picardo himself, Attorney General Michael Llamas and Financial Secretary Albert Mena – the core of Gibraltar’s Brexit negotiating team – to watch live as the result of the vote was announced.
And despite the chaos in the Commons, Mr Picardo remained confident that Gibraltar was ready for all possible outcomes.
“On the day we were due to leave the EU, there is now everything to play for,” the Chief Minister said.
“Stopping Brexit completely or a very soft Brexit are now possibilities.”
“The routes to that may be a long extension, a revocation, a referendum or a general election.”
“We remain ready for all eventualities – including the Withdrawal Agreement potentially passing next week – and working to ensure all outcomes are safe for Gibraltar.”
“Our work in the past three years stands us in very good stead as we navigate these uncharted waters.”
Indeed, as a result, my Brexit team and I watched the result of the vote in the Commons today safe in the knowledge that we knew what plan to pursue whatever the outcome.”
Keith Azopardi, the Leader of the GSD, said the result of Friday’s vote had been widely predicted.
“The size of the defeat is significant enough to think that a further last-ditch attempt at dragging it across the line in disregard of three previous failed attempts is a forlorn expectation,” he said.
“We hope that those who say that it is undemocratic to ask people to reflect again on Brexit will now acknowledge that their actions in repeatedly seeking to ram their bad deal through are democratically illegitimate.”
“In practice whatever emerges should be put back to the British people so that we can all express a view as to whether we wish to accept this form of Brexit and new relationship with the EU.”
“The vote today must now make it likely that there will have to be a request for a further extension and this time of a more significant nature to allow for more considered reflection.”
“It may make participation in European elections inevitable and cast further doubt on Mrs May’s future.”
“The downfall of her bad deal and the deal endorsed by Mr Picardo does bring the silver lining that we continue to hope for the emergence of options that may allow the British people another vote on Brexit or allow us to remain or present a package that more closely meets our fundamental objectives of freedom of movement and single market access.”
Independent MP Marlene Hassan Nahon, who leads the Together Gibraltar party, concurred with Mr Azopardi that the outcome of the vote was not a surprise.
“The writing was on the wall when the DUP said they wouldn’t vote in favour of May’s deal, dragging hardline ERG members along with them,” she said.
“As Europe looks on in bewilderment, the people of the UK look on in frustration, and Gibraltar in exasperation, the House of Commons continues to limp along in a vacuum of leadership and virtue.”
“Whitehall is out of time and out of options. It is now time for the people to decide.”