Gib must ‘hold its nerve’ in treaty talks as Spanish election looms

Chief Minister Fabian Picardo said Gibraltar must “hold its nerve” and keep working toward a UK/EU treaty for the Rock’s post-Brexit future, despite the disruption of a snap general election called by Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez on Monday.

Speaking a day after the surprise announcement in Madrid, Mr Picardo said it was “very unlikely” that agreement could be reached before polling day on July 23.

But he said there may be scope to progress with aspects of the work despite electoral rules that may limit any decision-making by the Spanish Government until after the vote.

“If the Spanish government is not able to give its approval or consent to a text of a treaty to have that treaty approved, then it's not going to be approved this side of a Spanish general election,” Mr Picardo said.

“That's not to say that we can't continue the work that we were doing or continue to explore certain elements of what it is that we are hoping to finalise.”

“But final agreement is now very unlikely to come before the results of the Spanish general election on the 23 July.”

The Chief Minister, who was in London on treaty business, was speaking after Mr Sanchez called a general election after the PSOE and its main ally Podemos suffered heavy losses in regional and municipal elections on Sunday.

Mr Sanchez brought forward the general election, which was due in December, after support for the conservative PP and the far-right party Vox surged on Sunday.

The PP is set to control eight of the 12 regions that voted on Sunday, including in Madrid and Valencia, with the party also winning three of Spain’s largest cities including Seville, traditionally a Socialist stronghold.

The results open up situations where Vox will hold the deciding votes in many regional government and councils across the country where the PP may not have majority presence.

The Gibraltar negotiation is for a treaty between the UK and the EU, but Brussels has made clear it will not enter any deal unless Spain, which plays a key role in the talks, is happy with it first.

With Spain’s political parties now on an election footing, there will be limits as to the extent that the negotiation can be progressed until after July 23.

“There will be things that cannot now continue,” Mr Picardo said.

“Indeed, there will be aspects of the European negotiation which might not be able to be taken to a conclusion, because Spain will need to, as a member state, be involved in the approval of certain aspects of that and will be consulted very directly on that, and they will need ministerial steers on that issue.”

“So, it's very important that we do understand the actual context in which we find ourselves and we understand why it is that we are here.”

Mr Picardo underscored the need for respect of Spain’s democratic processes, adding: “We must respect the outcome of that general election.”

He said his government remained ready to engage with whoever won on July 23, adding the outcome of the general election was not a foregone conclusion despite the PP’s lead in Spanish polls.

The Chief Minister also dismissed criticism in Gibraltar that a deal should have been reached sooner.

“If there was an option on the table which enabled us to do a safe and secure treaty that was good for Gibraltar, we would have done that treaty already,” Mr Picardo said.

“If we have not brought back a treaty, it's because it has not been possible to negotiate a treaty that is safe and secure for Gibraltar, a good treaty for Gibraltar.”

“I've always maintained that no treaty is better than a bad treaty, and that's the position that has ensured that we haven't brought back a treaty yet.”

Mr Picardo’s comments came amid wide concern in Gibraltar about the impact of the election calendar on the ongoing negotiations, and the possibility of a change in government in Madrid.

The fear here is that a win for the PP could further complicate a negotiation that has been fraught with difficulty from the outset, particularly if the conservative party needs to lean on Vox to obtain a majority in the Spanish parliament.

Keith Azopardi, the Leader of the Opposition, said that while the election announcement was a surprise, Mr Sanchez was “a canny operator” who must believe he has better chances of success now rather than waiting a further six months.

“Even so, the advances of PP and Vox seem to make that difficult and clearly a change of government in Spain is a new problematic which would have big implications for Gibraltar,” he told the Chronicle.

“We will have to wait and see what happens.”

Mr Azopardi said the dissolution of the Spanish parliament would “inevitably” impact on the progress of the negotiations, given the EU would first need Spanish consent before signing up to any deal.

“Additionally, as Mr Picardo explained in Parliament on Thursday, the parties are seeking to unblock agreement on principles and do not as yet have a shared treaty text in front of them,” he added.

“That would mean that a draft treaty would not emerge for some time after principles are unblocked.”

“That being the case, it seems clear that it is very unlikely that we will see any agreement or treaty ahead of the Spanish elections.”

“Our position remains that we support a safe and beneficial agreement and the time for judging whether it fulfils that test is when the detail, namely the legal text, is published.”

“We have given the Government ample political space over the last seven years to negotiate relevant agreements for our post-Brexit future.”

Marlene Hassan Nahon, the Leader of Together Gibraltar, said the results of Sunday’s elections in Spain were “bad news” for Gibraltar and for progressives worldwide.

“The PP/Vox marriage is becoming more and more cemented as we speak, and the possibility of a far-right influenced foreign ministry in Spain at a particularly sensitive time in our history has become much more tangible,” she said.

But Ms Hassan Nahon also cautioned against jumping to conclusions.

“Gibraltar should not settle for a deal that threatens our sovereignty regardless of the political timing or the changes in Government in Spain, and to accuse Fabian Picardo and his Government of not working hard on this process is simply unfair,” she said.

“In fact, the CM is absent from Gibraltar at a time in which things are becoming more and more dysfunctional precisely because he has been concentrating most of his efforts on this most crucial negotiation.”

“Also, after closer analysis, this result does not necessarily indicate a right-wing triumph at the coming election.”

“Gibraltar must be supportive of the Government as it endeavours to secure a safe and beneficial deal for Gibraltar, and we should think twice before politicking over an existential issue such as this one.”