By Fabian Picardo QC, Chief Minister of Gibraltar
On June 23 2016 some 23,000 Gibraltarians and residents of the Rock will be joining millions in the rest of the entire United Kingdom in having the opportunity to help decide the fate of our future inside or outside the European Union.
When you put that statistic - 23,000 - beside the fact that 120,000 plus may not be able to express their vote in UK if they are enjoying the Glastonbury festival it puts our influence in perspective, but only in numerical terms.
Yet I know from our experience when the Blair and Aznar governments tried impose an Anglo-Spanish deal on Gibraltar against our will the British public was hugely supportive. British public opinion backed our rejection of what was a very crude attempt to trample on our rights and our very strong attachment to our Queen, Elizabeth II. We have always been there for the British people and they too have been there for us.
Brexit is a much broader threat and challenge. It puts many uncertainties in our way both political and economic. It is also a shared challenge for all of the British family – England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and ourselves.
What will come of the two years of negotiations with the EU that would follow a Brexit decision? Where will Scotland be, what pragmatic decisions will be taken and who will take the brunt of any horse-trading for commercial or political expediencies?
David Cameron has now shown us, not just that he has been able to achieve some key changes to the direction of Europe but that Britain’s influence in Europe has been such that all the member states have managed to see their way to making, in some cases, reluctant concessions to keep the UK fully in Europe.
This is a divisive issue. Not only is a part of No 10 split and London’s charismatic mayor moving contrary to our and probably the City of London’s hopes; some of Gibraltar’s best friends in Parliament will find themselves torn between a commitment to Brexit and their long-standing loyalty to Gibraltar.
We understand that conundrum, but it means that all need to be especially clear on and prepared for the implications of Brexit if that happens. Europe’s glue may not be as available to repair damage to the British people’s fundamental interests for which many Brexiters may not have prepared.
What does the EU mean to us on the Rock? Historically our strategic position has made us a useful British landmark at the gates of the Mediterranean. We played our role in Britain’s rise to imperial power as Nelson’s base, then again in WWII we were a key element in protecting Allied interests and continued through the Cold War to provide facilities for UK, Nato and the US.
Our geography and history also meant that we have seen good and bad times with our neighbour Spain. We have often taken the brunt of its frustration in coming to terms with the fall of empire that was so closely followed by a long dictatorship.
As with much of Europe, the EU has come to mean a guarantee of peace as well as a gradual but fair reduction of the differences that still divide north and south. We have odd tensions and spats with Spain because their outdated sovereignty claim clashes with our democratic evolution into a modern European British territory.
After the 1969 – 1985 closure of border access by Spain’s General Franco the EU has mostly meant fluidity and shared prosperity. Gibraltar’s economy provides 6,000 jobs to Spanish workers and businesses. Our access to the single market and Britain has meant that our economy has not been dependent on British handouts for over 30 years. In that time we have evolved from a 70% Ministry of Defence based economy to fulfil Margaret Thatcher’s challenge to us to develop our tourism, financial services and commercial port services.
If we were sure of continued freedom of movement of people, services and goods, of access to the single market and into Britain then the possibility of Brexit would not seem such a threat, even though our preference is to remain a real part of the EU.
We are voting with the rest of Britain because we have shared this journey with the UK, the agony of directives, of implementation, of more and less red tape. But we have also seen benefits in financial support for projects that stimulated business, jobs, culture and heritage. We have learned and then relished the importance of transparency and compliance to meet high global standards especially in financial services. It has been the making of us.
Just two years ago a new Spanish Government came to power and reversed the very positive talks and co-operation we had embarked in what was known as the trilateral talks. Spain’s attempts to squeeze our economy and living standard by creating massive delays at the border saw the EU step in and mitigate this to the extent that flow is not ideal but it is manageable.
Gibraltar’s politicians have already made clear that they will be urging our voters to vote to stay in the EU. It’s a no-brainer for us. We can’t go back to those imperial days, nor would we want to. Gibraltar is a small modern democracy and a small but vital player in defence and stability. The EU working together but respecting differences is a formidable political and economic force. David Cameron has rapped the Brussels mandarins on the knuckles and secured a safer route for a united EU. We should stay together, British and European. Small as we are, Gibraltar will say that with one loud voice.
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