Post-Brexit Gibraltar border could become pawn between UK and Spain, says MEP Girling

MEP Julie Girling during Parliament's plenary session. [European Parliament]

Despite Theresa May’s efforts to salvage her “more than imperfect Brexit deal”, any serious business or government should now consider a no-deal exit as a real possibility and prepare for it, says MEP Julie Girling.

Julie Girling is a British independent (formerly Conservative Party) politician, currently serving as an EPP MEP for the South West of England and Gibraltar.

She spoke to EURACTIV’s Alexandra Brzozowski during the European Parliament’s December plenary session in Strasbourg.

You were recently expelled from the Conservative Party for refusing to back Theresa May’s handling of Brexit. What do you now make of the postponement of the ‘meaningful vote’?

I don’t think Mrs May has postponed this vote because she realistically expects to get any better deal negotiated. It is a very crude mechanism just for kicking the can down the road and not having a vote at all. She is in survival mode and just wants to run out of time by 29 March 2019.

Should we prepare for a no-deal, then?

Any serious business, any serious government would be preparing for a no-deal Brexit. I sincerely hope it does not happen, but we are a hundred days away and have to consider this as a real possibility. And that is why May is prolonging because she sees that it is a stark choice between her more than imperfect deal and a hard no-deal.

The closer she gets to the deadline, the more likely it is that MPs will fold and say gather behind no-deal. What she is refusing to do is to recognise that there are other options. For example, to extend Article 50 and have another referendum. Because if the politicians can’t sort it out, we should send it back to the people who have voted for this Brexit in the first place and leave the solution to them.

What can we expect from this week’s European Council then?

May will leave without any commitment for anything to change. There may be some flowery language to cover up what actually is going to happen.

It has all gone too far and too toxic in the UK for that to be meaningful work anymore. I think we will end this week in the same place as we started it. And that is likely what May wants, because it brings her one week closer to 29 March, one week closer to blackmailing people into accepting this very poor deal.

Recent polls indicate that support for a second referendum is on the rise.

I would like it to be even higher, but it is true that every time there is a poll, it grows. Even now, with all the attention and publicity about Brexit in the UK, a lot of people are quite undecided, because they find it is like weighing apples with oranges. There is a lot of unknowns.

Asking people to vote on something they actually do not know for sure what outcome there will be, is understandably very difficult. When we first started the People’s Vote campaign, people laughed as they said there is no appetite for another vote. Now at least 50% of the population say ‘Yes, we want to vote’.

Do you think Brexit will have a much bigger impact on Gibraltar because of the dispute with Spain? How do you think this uncertainty is going to shape the future negotiations?

It depends, because as I read it, there are not going to be any negotiations. There might be a few conversations and maybe an odd side declaration to the Political Agreement – but in terms of the Withdrawal Agreement I do not see any further negotiations.

The EU has been quite clear – from Mr Juncker down to the member states – that there is nothing to negotiate. This is the deal.

May took the deal as agreed to be ratified to her parliament, the cold, hard fact is that she cannot get it ratified by the Commons. What does that tell you? It is not actually the European Council or the European Parliament’s problem and therefore, in theory, nothing will change for Gibraltar, because this deal will be the deal.

The fact is that if there are any cracks in the EU’s stance, I would expect the Spanish government to immediately to bring up the question in the Spanish parliament. Otherwise, they may face the accusation that there is a Spanish interest in negotiating regarding Gibraltar and they are not taking it.

96% of Gibraltarians voted Remain. Do you think this would lead to a change of mind of people regarding sovereignty?

No, not in Gibraltar. One of the frustrating things about the discussion in Gibraltar is that it keeps shifting onto the ground of sovereignty. We see a lot of declarations from UK government ministers and the Gibraltarian government saying, ‘We will never surrender’. Nobody is asking them to.

What they should be saying is that we will not discuss any difference for Gibraltar from the UK. They have to acknowledge that we are on thin ice here, they have a different position now from the UK: They have no CAP, they have no Customs Union. They are asking for something in the future that they currently do not have. It is much more complex which is why you get this sort of trumpeting about sovereignty, which is rather obfuscating the real issue which is about freedom of movement of people.

You mean the border could become a hard border?

I hope that the border can remain open, but I fear that post-any-kind-of-Brexit, it will become a pawn in the continuing struggle between the UK and Spain. It does not mean that the UK will fold. No government in the future is going to compromise the sovereignty of Gibraltar, but with Brexit, there is likely to be a cost, because the border could be used as a pawn.

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