VINCE CABLE: Tories must ditch red lines for the Rock
Gibraltarians voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU. And yet, Lib Dem leader VINCE CABLE argues in an exclusive article, they face the hardest Brexit of all
Theresa May has been seriously hampered by her own Brexit negotiations with her misconceived and premature red lines.
There was no need to rule out staying in the single market: that was not an option on the referendum ballot paper. The single market was a British initiative and long seen as a British priority.
There was also no need to rule out remaining a member of the customs union: few would seriously argue that was a feature of the Leave or Remain campaigns. The technical problems involved in leaving it were never debated at the time.
The only red lines a Prime Minister should have taken to the European Union were protecting the rights of EU citizens living in the UK and UK nationals in the EU; demanding that there must not be a hard border on the island of Ireland or, figuratively, in the Irish Sea; and ensuring there is no change to the sovereignty of Gibraltar.
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Phase one of the negotiations saw that EU 27 and UK citizens living in each other's jurisdictions would not enjoy the same rights as they do today. EU nationals will be able to stay but the process is unclear and there are serious uncertainties.
No-one, save perhaps foreign secretary Boris Johnson, wants to even contemplate the possibility of a hard border in Ireland, yet the Conservatives' lack of flexibility in negotiations has resulted in the issue being nowhere near resolved. In an effort to bring the warring factions of the Conservative Party together, the Good Friday Agreement is in jeopardy of being unravelled.
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But those are two issues that have, at least, received the attention they deserve both from politicians and the media. The problems regarding the Rock, which Spain ceded to the UK through the Treaty of Utrecht more than 400 years ago, have been largely ignored.
It's still startling to be reminded just how overwhelmingly Gibraltarians voted to remain in the EU. At 96%, it's the type of figure that would make an authoritarian dictatorship blush. Yet the Conservatives' weak negotiating stance has left Gibraltar facing the possibility of suffering the hardest Brexit of all.
Clause 24 of the EU 27's joint negotiating position, published in April last year, included a Spanish veto over the application of any deal between the EU and UK over Gibraltar. Spain's prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, said it was 'plainly obvious' that such a veto would be part of the EU's negotiating guidelines. Gibraltar's chief minister, Fabian Picardo, described clause 24 as 'discriminatory and unfair'.
A footnote to the draft legal text of the Withdrawal Agreement published last month confirmed that this veto would also apply to the transitional period. The Gibraltarian government has rightly pointed out that 'by its very definition, transition is a continuation of the existing European Union legal order' and therefore this veto cannot apply.
Spain's claim to Gibraltar is fatally undermined by the statistic that 98% of Gibraltarians want to remain British and there is no sign of that view changing. The Conservatives' first act in response to the publication of the joint negotiating position should have been to insist on the removal of clause 24 – instead they gave us a general election that further weakened the Prime Minister's bargaining power in Europe, because she ended up losing her Parliamentary majority.
Fortunately, Spain's hard-line stance has slightly softened. Foreign minister Alfonso Dastis has been clear that he doesn't want a border closure, which last occurred under General Franco in 1969. Such a move would be mutually damaging: disastrous for the 13,000 people who live in Spain and work in Gibraltar and leave the Rock with a staff shortage.
But the veto remains and Gibraltar's politicians have sounded out legal opinions that would see them take the European Commission to court over clause 24.
Moreover, Spain continues to demand joint control of the Rock's airport, which is, after all, British infrastructure on British soil. This might seem a reasonable suggestion for a post-Brexit relationship, but this should be seen in the context of even the seemingly reasonable Dastis pointing out that 'sovereignty is something we aspire to, that we are not renouncing'.
Control of the airport has been disputed for more than four decades, so it would be optimistic to assume that a satisfactory resolution will be found in the coming months. As Chief minister Picardo, has argued, Spain's warmer words must be followed up by action, yet the veto remains.
At the time of writing, Picardo was set to lead a Gibraltarian delegation to London to meet with British ministers. Officials believe this is a particularly sensitive moment in negotiations for Gibraltar.
In other words, it is time for the Conservative government to ditch its self-defeating red lines and replace them with a demand that clause 24 is removed from negotiations.
This is the most sensible course of action and would draw some of the heat out of Brexit negotiations. There are too many centuries of dispute and ill-feeling over the Rock to allow Gibraltar, the most Remain-leaning part of the UK, to be used as a pawn in Brexit.
Exit From Brexit
The best solution for Gibraltar, Ireland, the UK and the EU would, of course, be for an exit from Brexit.
The Liberal Democrats have led the campaign for a public vote on the terms of the deal the Conservatives secure, which would include the option of staying in the EU.
I'm not a fan of referendums for big, complex issues, but having started on this journey with a referendum, a public vote is the only way of ending it.
As we prepare for our spring conference in Southport this weekend, we are growing confident the public mood is shifting our way on this issue. For example, an ICM poll for The Guardian in late January saw a 16-point lead for those supporting this vote over those who oppose it.
In the coming council elections we will be asking for the votes of around one million EU citizens.
We have developed a sophisticated social media campaign, looking to reach these citizens through videos in 21 EU languages.
The videos are fronted by MEPs who will ask these citizens to register and then vote for us, the only major party unashamedly calling for an exit from Brexit.
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