A ‘no deal’ Brexit would leave Gibraltar “painfully vulnerable at every level” and must be avoided at all costs, a stalwart champion of Gibraltar in the House of Commons said this week.
Conservative MP Bob Neill, the chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Gibraltar, was speaking during a whistle-stop visit to Gibraltar to sound out views here on the latest developments in the Brexit saga.
Against the backdrop of Prime Minister Theresa May’s resignation and a fiercely-contested Tory leadership contest, he said it was “critical” that Gibraltar’s position was properly understood and reflected in the UK parliament.
Mr Neill said support for Gibraltar “isn’t just about words” or annual trips to the Rock for National Day, or even defending sovereignty rights “critical though those are”.
“It’s also about making sure that we support the economy and the livelihoods of the people of Gibraltar, and that means approaching Brexit from a realistic point of view,” he said.
“Gibraltar is in the frontline in a way which, probably, most of my colleagues’ constituents can’t imagine.”
Mr Neill was a remainer during the referendum campaign and supported staying in the EU.
But he accepts the democratic outcome of that vote and believes that a re-run of the referendum would be “very divisive” with no guaranteed outcome.
“So I want a swift conclusion, because uncertainty is damaging business in the UK and it’s damaging business in Gibraltar,” he told the Chronicle.
“We can’t let it drag on. But that has to involve a deal.”
Mr Neill said any tweaks to Mrs May’s deal to get it through parliament would be focused mainly on the Northern Ireland backstop, the main stumbling block to date.
But he said that in that process, it was “vital” to maintain the protections that Gibraltar obtained within Mrs May’s controversial Brexit deal.
And despite his concerns about the impact of a hard Brexit on both the UK and Gibraltar, Mr Neill was nonetheless confident that this outcome could be avoided.
“The House of Commons has made it clear that [‘no deal’] would not be acceptable, and one way or another, that view will be asserted,” he said.
And in a warning to hardline Brexiteers MPs in his own party, he added that pushing for a ‘no deal’ Brexit would almost certainly trigger a general election at a very difficult time in UK politics.
Both the Conservatives and Labour suffered at the polls in the recent European election, and a general election would not resolve the Brexit impasse.
“It would probably throw up a parliament that is even more hung and complex than it is at the moment, and even less able to take decisions or create a government that could negotiate with any strength,” he said.
“It would weaken our position massively.”
“It would also damage not just our economic potential, it would set the union at risk.”
Mr Neill said it was necessary for politicians in all parties to temper their language and their messages.
He said “calm, sensible measures” were in danger of being drowned out by “strident, dangerously simplistic rhetoric” that risked unleashing “undesirable currents” in politics that would hamper the search for solutions.
Mr Neill also dismissed any suggestion that Gibraltar had antagonised Brexiteers in the Commons by backing Mrs May’s deal and later calling for a second referendum and even revocation of Article 50.
He said MPs in the UK respected Gibraltar’s constitutional right to fight for its own interests and that these, while aligned with the UK’s, need not be identical.
“The greater risk is not antagonism, the greater risk is collateral damage, something which is not intended,” he said.
“It’s the thought that decisions might be taken [in the UK] without Gibraltar being kept in mind.”
“The collateral damage of a ‘no deal’ Brexit where it’s thought of purely in terms of what happens to the UK, not what happens to Gibraltar.”
“We need to avoid that, and that’s why I’m here.”