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BREXIT

OPINION: As the ‘moment of truth’ arrives our Brexit future is still uncertain

writes Sue Wilson from Bremain in Spain

OPINION: As the 'moment of truth' arrives our Brexit future is still uncertain
Photo: AFP

On Sunday evening, the last trade deal deadline passed without progress, leaving us none the wiser as to whether the UK will leave the EU with a deal in just a few days time.

Although I understood the attraction of Boris Johnson’s “Get Brexit Done” catchphrase – particularly to Leave voters – it never appealed to me personally. Had the prime minister come up with a “get a deal done” catchphrase, I might have been converted!

Let me be clear (to use a phrase nicked from a former PM): I’m not saying that I’ve become a Brexit fan; just that the Brexit negotiations have been interminable! Deadlines have come and gone. When the chances of a deal were described as “very, very difficult”, our patience wore very, very thin.

How many ways can politicians, or the media, say it’s the 11th hour in the talks? In case you missed any of them, a few of my personal favourites are: last chance saloon, on a knife edge, moment of truth and end of the road.

Following the latest round of talks, Chief Negotiator, Michel Barnier, said the EU remained committed to achieving “a fair, reciprocal and balanced agreement”, and that talks with the UK’s chief negotiator, Lord Frost, had reached a “crucial moment”. 

In response, the UK accused the EU of making “unreasonable demands” and stated that a “substantial shift” was required in the EU’s position. Whitehall sources said no-deal was increasingly likely. If that sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve been here several times before. Unsurprisingly, it’s still about fish and the level playing field.

Despite the final, final, final deadline having passed, the talks are continuing still. Sunday’s deadline, set by the EU, offered the last opportunity for the European parliament to ratify any agreement before the transition period ends. While talks are continuing, a last-minute deal is possible, but it’s unclear what it would entail. Until any deal can be ratified, there could be contingency plans implemented, or a brief period of no-deal, and the accompanying chaos.

As if Brexit problems aren’t enough, a new strain of Covid – thought to originate in Kent – has thrown the UK’s plans into disarray. The new strain, which has been around since September and on the government’s radar since October, apparently spreads more rapidly.

Thankfully, it’s no more lethal than the original strain, and there’s no reason to expect it wouldn’t respond to the vaccine. However, it has caused widespread concern across Europe.

As a precaution against the new strain, over 40 countries have closed their borders to the UK, including Spain. France has gone further by closing the Eurotunnel and preventing the movement of freight. Apparently, EU countries do have the freedom to control their own borders after all! Who knew?

Over recent days, long queues of lorries had already formed on the approach to the port of Dover. Many companies followed government advice to stockpile goods from the EU before the transition period ends.

With Christmas demand also increasing traffic, hold-ups were to be expected. Where will those lorries go now that they are unable to leave the country? The infamous Kent lorry park – nicknamed the “Farage Garage” – won’t be ready until February.

Despite the emergency restrictions, companies can still ferry goods to the UK, but how many will want to risk their personnel and trucks being stuck there over Christmas?

Under these circumstances, there have been increased demands for an extension to the transition period, including from Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland.

In a tweet on Sunday evening, she said: 

It’s now imperative that PM seeks an agreement to extend the Brexit transition period. The new Covid strain – & the various implications of it – means we face a profoundly serious situation, & it demands our 100% attention. It would be unconscionable to compound it with Brexit.

— Nicola Sturgeon (@NicolaSturgeon) December 20, 2020

I’ve always, (well, nearly always), believed there would be a deal. Even at this late hour, I still do, though I’m not expecting it to be a good one – just better than the alternative. But deal or no deal, now is the wrong time for posturing, grandstanding or endless bloody nonsense about fish!

The Prime Minister needs to get a grip on the virus and put public health above public opinion. We’ve waited a long time for news of a deal. We can tolerate Groundhog Day for a little longer if it means lives can be saved.

By Sue Wilson – Chair of Bremain in Spain

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BREXIT

BREXIT: Spain and EU suggest removing Gibraltar border

Madrid and Brussels have approached the British government with a proposal for removing the border fence between Spain and Gibraltar in order to ease freedom of movement, Spain's top diplomat said Friday.

BREXIT: Spain and EU suggest removing Gibraltar border

“The text presented to the United Kingdom is a comprehensive proposal that includes provisions on mobility with the aim of removing the border fence and guaranteeing freedom of movement,” Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares said, according to a ministry statement.

Such a move would make Spain, as representative of Europe’s passport-free Schengen zone, “responsible for controlling Gibraltar’s external borders”, it said.

The Schengen Area allows people to move freely across the internal borders of 26 member states, four of which are not part of the EU.

There was no immediate response from London.

A tiny British enclave at Spain’s southern tip, Gibraltar’s economy provides a lifeline for some 15,000 people who cross in and out to work every day.

Most are Spanish and live in the impoverished neighbouring city of La Línea.

Although Brexit threw Gibraltar’s future into question, raising fears it would create a new “hard border” with the EU, negotiators reached a landmark deal for it to benefit from the rules of the Schengen zone just hours before Britain’s departure on January 1, 2021.

Details of the agreement have yet to be settled.

With a land area of just 6.8 square kilometres (2.6 square miles), Gibraltar is entirely dependent on imports to supply its 34,000 residents and the deal was crucial to avoid slowing cross-border goods trade with new customs procedures.

Albares said the proposal would mean Madrid “taking on a monitoring and protection role on behalf of the EU with regards to the internal market with the removal of the customs border control” between Spain and Gibraltar.

The deal would “guarantee the free movement of goods between the EU and Gibraltar” while guaranteeing respect for fair competition, meaning businesses in the enclave would “compete under similar conditions to those of other EU operators, notably those in the surrounding area”.

Although Spain ceded Gibraltar to Britain in 1713, Madrid has long wanted it back in a thorny dispute that has for decades involved pressure on the frontier.

READ ALSO: Why are Ceuta and Melilla Spanish?

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