Theresa May’s defeat in the House of Commons has increased the chances of the UK and Gibraltar remaining in the European Union, Chief Minister Fabian Picardo said on Tuesday, even as he insisted that Gibraltar was nevertheless prepared for all possible outcomes, including a hard Brexit.
Mr Picardo was speaking after Mrs May’s Brexit strategy was dealt a devastating blow by MPs, who rejected her EU Withdrawal Agreement by an overwhelming majority for the second time.
MPs voted by 391 to 242 against the deal, despite the Prime Minister’s assurance that new agreements reached with Jean-Claude Juncker in Strasbourg would ensure the UK cannot be trapped in the controversial backstop arrangement indefinitely.
Although the 149 margin was reduced from the record 230-vote defeat of the first “meaningful vote” in January, Mrs May was left far adrift from a majority with just 17 days to go to the scheduled date of Brexit on March 29.
Some 75 Conservative MPs rebelled to vote against the deal, while just three Labour MPs and four independents joined the 235 Tories who backed it.
European Commission president Mr Juncker had already warned that if MPs turned down the package agreed in Strasbourg on Monday, there would be “no third chance” to renegotiate.
After the vote, the EU said the risk of a damaging no-deal Brexit had “increased significantly” and there would be no more negotiations with London on the divorce terms.
“The EU has done everything it can to help get the Withdrawal Agreement over the line,” the bloc’s main Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier said.
“The impasse can only be solved in the UK. Our ‘no-deal’ preparations are now more important than ever before.”
In coordinated statements, representatives of European Council President Donald Tusk and the executive European Commission also said that the EU has done “all that is possible to reach an agreement … it is difficult to see what more we can do.”
The bloc insists the troubled divorce deal will not be improved again and expects British Prime Minister Theresa May to ask for a delay to Brexit to avoid economic disruptions should Britain crash out with no plan in place.
“With only 17 days left to 29th March, today’s vote has significantly increased the likelihood of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit,” the EU said.
“Should there be a UK reasoned request for an extension, the EU27 will consider it and decide by unanimity. The EU27 will expect a credible justification for a possible extension and its duration,” it said, adding that any Brexit delay must not interfere with EU parliamentary elections due on May 24-26.
In line with a promise set out by Mrs May last month, MPs are now due to vote on Wednesday on whether they are willing for the UK to leave the EU without a deal on March 29.
Mrs May announced that she will grant Conservative MPs a free vote on a motion stating that “this House declines to approve leaving the European Union without a Withdrawal Agreement and a framework on the future relationship on March 29 2019 and notes that leaving without a deal remains the default in UK and EU law unless this House and the EU ratify an agreement”.
If MPs reject no-deal as most Westminster observers expect, a third vote will follow on Thursday on whether to authorise Mrs May to request an extension of the two-year Article 50 negotiation process.
The developments in Westminster were being followed closely by the Gibraltar Government and the Opposition.
“Today’s result makes the possibility of our staying the European Union more likely than it has been since the Article 50 notice was given,” Chief Minister Fabian Picardo told the Chronicle.
“What will happen is still not clear, but I believe it is likely Parliament will tomorrow [meaning Wednesday] take a ‘no deal’ exit off the table. That will be good for Gibraltar.”
“I believe it is the responsibility of all MPs to vote to take ‘no-deal’ off the table.”
“Thereafter, the options will be to leave with a deal or to open the door to a revocation of the Article 50 notice, or an extension and even possibly a new referendum.”
“For Gibraltar, each of those permutations represents challenges and opportunities – but revocation and remain are the best options.”
“At worst, if the deal comes back with changes in the back-stop, we are fully protected in it.”
“We will nonetheless continue to plan for every eventuality, as we have every day since even before the result of the referendum, given that there is as yet no certainty of outcomes that we can bank on for Gibraltar and its people.”
“That remains the responsible thing for us to do.”
GSD Leader Keith Azopardi said the outcome of the vote in Westminster was “unsurprising”, particularly after the UK’s Attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, released formal legal advice that the changes secured by Mrs May “reduce the risk” that the backstop will be permanent, but do not remove it altogether.
The result of the Commons vote “…represents another crushing verdict by the UK Parliament on this Agreement which is bad for the UK and bad for Gibraltar,” Mr Azopardi told the Chronicle.
“There are now further votes planned in the UK Parliament this week and clearly we would hope that the prospect of leaving the EU without a deal – that is, a hard Brexit – is also defeated.”
“The best outcome for Gibraltar is that in due course circumstances should develop to give us a second referendum on whether to accept a withdrawal agreement or remain within the EU, or to see a revocation of Article 50 completely so that we could stay in the EU.”
“The GSD has consistently said for months that this was a bad deal for Gibraltar when compared to remaining in the EU and we continue to consider the developing political panorama in UK could make better outcomes more favourable to Gibraltar possible.”
“Despite all that of course the Government must continue to plan for all scenarios given that this is a fluid political environment where nothing is certain.”
In a statement, Together Gibraltar said the outcome of the vote was bad not just for Mrs May but for the Gibraltar Government too, adding that “…it is clear that for Gibraltar, the Government putting all its weight behind the Prime Minister and her failed project has been a knock-on failure for Gibraltar.”
“The question now is, how ready are we for the alternative scenarios that can transpire?” the party asked.
And despite the likelihood of the Commons ruling out a ‘no deal’ Brexit in today’s vote, it added: “How prepared is this [Gibraltar] Government for the possibility of a No Deal Brexit prevailing?”
The party said that its leader, Independent MP Marlene Hassan Nahon, had asked last December what steps Gibraltar had taken to ensure that perishable food products could cross the border after Brexit, given that La Linea does not have a border inspection post to conduct checks under EU rules.
The Chief Minister replied at the time that the EU rules stemmed from the Common Agricultural Policy and that it was “not a policy that has applied to Gibraltar”, adding that this was a “zero issue going forward”.
“Today, we find ourselves with no Border Inspection Points yet set up and with potentially days to a possible no deal Brexit,” Together Gibraltar said.
“How much effective planning is taking place in order to ensure that what the Chief Minister claims to be ‘zero issues’ do not instead become ‘massive issues’?”
“And similarly, how prepared is the Gibraltar Government for an extension to article 50 and what that may bring?”
“The people of Gibraltar deserve some genuine clarity as to the direction and preparation that government is taking on our collective behalf.”
MAIN PHOTO: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/PA Wire