Delivering a UK/EU treaty for Gibraltar “must” be a top priority for the UK Government, the House of Commons was told on Thursday, as MPs were reminded too of the UK’s “moral obligation” to pick up the economic cost of a ‘no deal’ outcome.
The message was delivered by Conservative MP Sir Bob Neill, the chairman of the all-party group on Gibraltar, during a wide-ranging debate on the Overseas Territories in the presence of representatives of each of the territories, including Gibraltar’s man in London, Dominique Searle.
Sir Bob reflected on how Gibraltarians had accepted the democratic outcome of the 2016 Brexit referendum, despite voting overwhelmingly to remain in the EU.
And he highlighted too the vital role of border fluidity to the Rock’s “diverse and thriving” economy.
“We owe them,” he said, adding that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office “must” deliver “a proper” UK/EU treaty that reflects Gibraltar’s needs.
“Keeping that land border free flowing is an essential prerequisite of any deal that must be achieved in a way which respects Gibraltar's sovereignty and integrity,” Sir Bob added.
“That should not be impossible to do.”
“It should be the top priority now of the Foreign Office in resolving the remaining EU/UK issues.”
But Sir Bob, a long-time champion of the Gibraltarians, said too that the UK must be ready to step up and support the Rock if a treaty is not agreed.
“Should, heaven forbid, we fail, then we would have a moral obligation to pick up the cost, the economic costs that would fall upon Gibraltar,” he said.
“In consequence, the best thing to do is make sure that never happens, that we get a deal.”
“The second thing is practical support that we can give to Gibraltar in various specific ways.”
Sir Bob recalled how Gibraltar had borrowed £500m at UK sovereign rates during the Covid-19 pandemic thanks to a UK sovereign guarantee.
He said the money had enabled Gibraltar’s healthcare response to the pandemic and supported its economy during lockdowns.
“We were grateful for the support that they were given,” Sir Bob told MPs.
“They want to continue to be able to borrow money at UK sovereign rates, because the sovereign rate guarantee, of course, means you can get to get a much more attractive rate.”
“Much of this went to keep the health service going, their economy going, [and] surely we owe them the decency of a guarantee of 25 years repayment at sovereign rates on the money that was done to assist them during the pandemic.”
Sir Bob cited too other practical ways that the UK could assist Gibraltar, for example by allowing UK students to use their loans to study in Gibraltar, and by allowing Gibraltar to procure medical supplies at the same rates as the NHS.
Up to speed on the latest developments here, Sir Bob also raised the disruption at Gibraltar International Airport on Wednesday and said MPs should “talk perhaps to the MoD” to highlight the concerns.
“We've got to get that right and treat Gibraltar on a proper basis,” he said.
“These are basics that we ought to get right.”
But it was the treaty that dominated his intervention.
“I believe there is goodwill,” he said of the ongoing negotiation.
“No one has worked harder than the Gibraltar ministers and their officials to try and get a deal on this.”
“Absolute maturity and good faith have been demonstrated by Gibraltar and it's important that we support them in that.”
‘ENCYCLOPAEDIA OF ISSUES’
The debate in the Commons was on a motion tabled by Conservative MP Alicia Kearns, who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee, and aimed to raise the profile of the OTs in the UK Parliament and send a solid message of support.
There was consensus on self-determination as the core principle underpinning the UK relationship with its overseas territories, but also recognition of their diversity and the fact that “one size does not fit all”.
That must be reflected in the constitutional relationship of each territory with the UK, the Commons was told.
MPs highlighted too the strategic value of the overseas territories, not just militarily but in terms of UK “soft power”, and discussed how the UK Government could bolster support for each territory in a way that empowered them to take their own decisions and actions in partnership with London.
For over two hours, MPs debated what Ms Kearns described as “an encyclopaedia of issues” relating to the different overseas territories, from broad themes such as climate change and environmental concerns, to fine detail such as the lack of ambulances in a remote territory.
In summing up as the motion was passed, she addressed the OTs representatives sitting in the public gallery above the Commons’ debating chamber.
“I hope today that all of you in the gallery have felt and heard [that] hopefully we have given voice to some of these issues,” she said.
“I hope that has helped show that we believe strongly in your self-determination.”
Responding to the motion for the UK government, David Rutley, the Minister for the Americas and Caribbean at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, said: “We're all part of the British family and this relationship is built on respect and trust.”
“We will continue to work in close partnership to strengthen our relationship yet further in the years and the decades ahead.”
On Gibraltar and the treaty negotiations, he added: “We are working hard with the Government of Gibraltar to make progress and we remain confident that with flexibility on all sides of deal is possible.”
There was support too from the Labour bench, where Stephen Doughty, the party’s Shadow Minister for the FCDO, said a future Labour government would have five governing principles in its relationships with the overseas territories.
These would centre on “devolution and democratic autonomy” based on constitutional principles of partnership and engagement.
“I firmly believe in the principle of nothing about you without you,” Mr Doughty said.
He spoke too of “mutual respect and inclusion” across all government, not just the FCDO, and relationships based on common values, obligations and principles, alongside ensuring “proper democratic accountability and regulation”.
The overseas territories, Mr Doughty said, were “an integral and cherished part of the global British family”.
“For as long as the people of the Overseas Territories wish to remain part of this British family, we will robustly defend their security, autonomy and their rights,” he said.
“And as has been rightly pointed out, not least in the case of the Falkland Islands and Gibraltar, very firm commitment to their self-determination has been expressed by their peoples.”
“That is the commitment of this side of the House, and I know it's shared by many across this House.”