15 August 2017

Why Gibraltarians deserve their own Member of Parliament

By Michael Mosbacher

On the night of June 23 last year Gibraltar was the first voting area to declare its result in the EU referendum. Its tiny size of two and a half square miles, which meant ballot boxes did not have far to travel, and its small electorate of 24,000 meant the result could be declared at 11.40pm UK time.

Many of those watching the results would have been surprised to hear that this Mediterranean territory 1,500 miles from London could vote in the referendum at all. After all, the Rock’s residents do not vote in British General Elections.

Yet as Gibraltar — unlike the UK’s other overseas territories — is part of the European Union it was only right that its residents also had a vote. Gibraltar voted 96 per cent to remain in the EU on a turnout of 84 per cent.

The result was unsurprising. Spain closed its border with the Rock in 1969 in an attempt to bully the territory into accepting Spanish sovereignty, only fully reopening it with that country’s accession to the European Community in 1985. Gibraltarians have no desire to return to a situation where the only way to travel to their immediate hinterland, or indeed for goods to cross the narrow three quarter of a mile border, is to criss-cross the Mediterranean via Morocco.

The EU has declared that any deal on post-Brexit trade and wider relations it negotiates with the UK will not apply to Gibraltar unless Spain specifically agrees. It is the hope of Spain that the Gibraltarians might reconsider their deep antipathy to any notion of Spanish sovereignty, or joint Spanish/UK sovereignty, over the Rock if the alternative is a return to the bad old days of the blockade. That said, Spain’s foreign minister has allayed concerns that they will veto a Brexit deal over the issue.

The response of Gibraltarian politicians shows that Spanish desire for a share of control is forlorn. In a 2002 referendum Gibraltar rejected joint sovereignty by 99 per cent; surely the most one-sided democratic vote ever. Their attitudes have not changed and are unlikely to do so.

The Gibraltarians’ extreme loyalty to the UK might seem as odd as its physical geography. The Rock’s people, unlike the many Brits living just across the border in Marbella, only 30 miles away, and other parts of Andalusia, have not recently moved over from Cheshire or Essex. Instead, they are a distinct Mediterranean people who in many ways have more in common with the Spanish than the British.

Their loyalism, even though of a different religious persuasion — Gibraltar is over 70 per cent Roman Catholic with a noticeable Jewish presence (at 2.5 per cent, Gibraltar’s 800 or so Jews are the world’s second largest community as a proportion of the total population) — is perhaps more readily understood by the inhabitants of the Shankhill Road than the “anywheres” of central London.

In addition to the Gibraltarians’ historic and emotional ties to the UK they have powerful economic incentives to preserve the status quo. With the decline of the British naval presence, online gambling — alongside offshore banking and low duty alcohol and tobacco — have taken over as the Rock’s primary industries.

These would inevitably be imperilled by any change of status. If there was good will on the European side it would be possible to negotiate a deal whereby Gibraltar remains in the UK but also stays part of the EU. The reverse of this already exists: Jersey and Guernsey are UK Crown Colonies but not part of the EU; Greenland, the only place previously to leave the European Union, is still Danish territory. Gibraltar’s small size, current status and its lack of a border with the UK would offer none of the problems that such a status for Scotland or Northern Ireland would present. There is however little sign of such goodwill from Spain in particular and the EU in general.

Spain’s hard-line stance on Gibraltar is especially hypocritical since it has its own, rather larger coastal enclaves, Ceuta and Melilla, in Morocco. It has shown no willingness to hand these back. It is true that both these places feel very much more Spanish than Gibraltar — for all its UK high street shops, red post boxes and bad pub food — feels British. That, however, is not the point. It is not for outsiders to judge the legitimacy of the Gibraltarians’ attachments. Spain argues that its enclaves are an integral part of the Spanish nation whereas Gibraltar is a mere colony.

There is, of course, a ready solution to this. Gibraltar could send an MP to Westminster. France’s colonies — which it insists are integral parts of France — have representatives in the National Assembly and Denmark’s self-governing territories of the Faroe Islands and Greenland are represented in the Folketing.

Gibraltar has its own parliament and makes its own laws on nearly all internal matters. Would that system have to be brought to an end if the Rock were given an MP? Full integration with the UK would spell economic disaster. If our tax system and gambling laws applied to Gibraltar, the territory would lose its few competitive advantages.

In the past, Gibraltar’s self-government might have been a reason to object to a Gibraltarian MP at Westminster. But with Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland devolution this argument is greatly weakened. If the Scottish parliament can have significant powers over taxation and still send representation to Westminster then why can’t Gibraltar? In any case, devolution is not as novel an idea in the UK as it is often supposed. Northern Ireland had its own parliament, with very extensive – indeed almost complete – law making powers from 1921 to 1972 while still sending MPs to Westminster.

If Gibraltar were to send an MP to Westminster it would be difficult to argue that Britain’s other overseas territories should not be allowed to do the same. While some would have to be grouped together in joint constituencies due to their tiny populations, this would be no bad thing. In fact, it would demonstrate to the world the UK’s commitment to them so long as they wished to remain linked to us.

Michael Mosbacher is the Managing Editor of Standpoint and the co-author of 'Brexit Revolt: How the UK Voted to Leave the EU'