Gibraltar captured the news headlines in August after the Spanish Government imposed lengthy eight hour queues to enter and leave the Rock as part of its age old campaign to regain sovereignty. However my article today leaves aside that 300-year-old dispute and instead deals with events being played out in a dusty committee room of the House of Commons. This centre’s on the battle to ensure Gibraltarians are allowed to vote in the Conservative’s EU In-Out Referendum should the Tories be returned to power at the next UK election.
Gibraltar has been a member of the EU since January 1 1973 by virtue of Britain’s membership. However although Gibraltarians are full European citizens they were denied a vote in the European Elections until the 2004 poll. This followed a ten-year legal fight by Gibraltarians which culminated with the European Court ruling that as European Citizens they had the fundamental right to vote in the Euro elections. The UK then added Gibraltar to the South West England Constituency where it sits today.
A cynic may say there are two facts that may colour the Conservative Party’s seeming reluctance to include Gibraltar in its EU In-Out referendum. The first is that in the 2009 European Elections Gibraltar was the only area amongst all the UK Constituencies where the vote for Labour increased.
The second is that Gibraltar is very pro-Europe and indeed the UK’s withdrawal from the EU would be politically and economically disastrous for the Rock. Hence if an In – Out Referendum is held in 2017 it is likely that Gibraltarians will vote massively to continue EU membership. True Gibraltar only has around 20,000 votes but in a tight election that total could help swing the election in favour of staying in the EU.
The whole concept of the 2017 referendum is a bizarre piece of legislation. It is not the Conservative – Lib Dem Government that is proposing it but it comes in the form of a Tory private member’s bill. It would only be enacted if a Conservative Government was returned. It has little to do with the EU but rather is a tactic to fend off UKIP at the next General Election and to keep Tory Euro-sceptics onside.
The job of the current Gibraltar Government is to ensure Gibraltarians are part of any referendum with full voting rights. A general election will have been held in Gibraltar before the 2017 date comes around so it will be for the next Government to deal with the actual referendum and its campaign.
In off the record chats with Gibraltar Government officials I have been told that the UK has given the impression that Gibraltarians would be allowed to vote in the referendum. However there is nothing in writing and the current bill being discussed in Committee at the House of Commons, the Conservative Private Member’s Bill, does not allow for Gibraltarians to vote.
The Conservative Minister for Europe David Lidington had the chance to clear up the matter last week when he addressed the committee stage of the Bill. He said that regardless of whether or not Gibraltar is included in the In-Out referendum on the EU, which has yet to be determined, the UK should consult the Government of Gibraltar to fully understand its views as Gibraltarians would be affected by the decision either way.
Indeed they would Mr Lidington but asking the Gibraltar Government its views is a far cry from allowing Gibraltarians, as British and European citizens, to vote and is simply not acceptable. The suspicion that the Tories intend to deny Gibraltarians the vote is strengthened by the fact that Lidington did not take the opportunity when he had it to state categorically that Gibraltar would be allowed to participate which would have cleared up all doubt.
Instead it has been left to Lidington’s shadow, Labour Europe Minister Emma Reynolds and her team to fight Gibraltar’s corner. Reynolds is worried that the bill as currently drafted fails to appreciate the particular and unique legal and constitutional position of Gibraltar as both a self governing British Overseas Territory and as part of the European Union.
As the Bill is currently drafted, the entitlement to vote in the proposed referendum will be restricted to “persons who, on the date of the referendum, would be entitled to vote as electors at a parliamentary election in any constituency.”
Whilst Gibraltarians are entitled to vote in European Parliamentary elections as part of the South West England Constituency they are self governing and not represented in the UK’s Parliament. The people of Gibraltar would therefore not be able to vote on whether to remain or leave the European Union should a referendum take place. There is also the prospect of Gibraltar having to leave the European Union, alongside the UK, without its people having had a say. Labour has proposed two key amendments: the first to ensure that Gibraltarians as British citizens are included and the second that Gibraltar’s result is declared separately. Will the Tories take note? No sign so far!
For Gibraltar this is a two-fold issue. Gibraltarians, as European Citizens, must be allowed to vote on their future in Europe. Withdrawal would have important negative economic implications for Gibraltar.
Gibraltar’s successful business model has taken the best part of the past forty years to develop as Gibraltarians have matured into their role in Europe. In an address to the Fabian Society in London in April Gibraltar’s socialist Chief Minister, Fabian Picardo, stated: “Our success in tourism, bunkering, telecoms, financial services and gaming as well as the many other sectors of our economic activity depends on our membership of the EU giving us unimpeded access to the Single Market in services and free movement of people and capital.” He added: “Now would be the wrong to time to change one of the few successful economic models in Southern Europe.”
The prospect of Gibraltar’s economy being destroyed by the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, via a referendum in which Gibraltarians as British and European Citizens had no say, would be disastrous for Gibraltar and disastrous for our concept of democracy. It is the duty of the Conservative-led Government and the Conservative Party to ensure that does not happen.
(The above article appeared in the London Progressive Journal on September 16 2013 with a version also in the Gibraltar daily, Panorama).