Chief Minister Fabian Picardo
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Special Interview Feature

The Gib Statesman: Chief Minister interviewed

Gibraltar's current Chief Minister Fabian Picardo was elected on a campaign of change and claims to have brought radical reform to the Rock’s political framework. Charlotte Simmonds hears the backstory.

Fabian Picardo, Chief Minister of Gibraltar and leader of the Gibraltar Socialist Labour Party (GSLP), is sitting in the front room of Gibraltar House in London, drinking a cup of Earl Grey. It’s four o’clock. Light streams in through wide windows facing the Strand and, as he sits with tea in hand, the quintessentially British scene befits this politician, who governs a territory that has been part of the UK for over 300 years.

Yet it turns out that tea breaks are an infrequent occurrence in Mr Picardo’s busy schedule. “I only drink it two or three times a year,” he confides. “I know some people who drink tea all day, but for me it’s strictly coffee in the mornings – and I don’t often get a chance for a hot drink in the afternoon.”

Picardo is in London for a full week of meetings, including sit-downs with the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, and the Minister for Europe, David Lidington. He is here with his Deputy Chief Minister and long-time colleague Dr Joseph Garcia, who leads the Liberal Party of Gibraltar, to discuss issues that have been high on the political agenda lately: increased border tensions with Spain, the forthcoming elections to the European Parliament and Gibraltar’s status in the EU.

“I say to everyone that Gibraltar’s most important relationship in the world is with the UK,” Picardo tells me, “but that our second most important is with Spain.” While he says the former is in “a golden era” and that the current parliament “thinks instinctively like Gibraltarians on our issues”, the latter has entered a more troubling period.

Since the conservative Partido Popular was elected in Spain in 2011, the country has returned to a staunchly anti-Gibraltar outlook. On its watch, incursions into Gibraltar’s territorial waters by Spanish government vessels, a row over the expansion of an artificial reef built by marine conservationists, and an increase of over two hours in the average border delay since 2012 (Gibraltar has submitted more than 500 complaints about this to the European Commission) have all occurred, and are seen as attempts to undermine the Rock’s existence.

Picardo laments this backtracking, in the light of a 2002 referendum in which 98 per cent of Gibraltarian voters rejected a proposal for joint Spanish-British sovereignty. This was viewed as a turning point in the territory’s efforts to decide a future for itself. It was followed in 2005 by a trilateral dialogue in which British, Spanish and Gibraltarian officials resolved a number of critical disputes. By 2006, Gibraltar and the UK had ratified a new constitution that advanced a more mature and independent relationship between the pair. Border fluidity improved, Gibraltar received a dialling code, and the Spanish government opened a cultural institute in the territory’s urban centre.

“The Partido Popular made it clear while in opposition that it was against the dialogue and would wreck any attempt to work with us unless it saw movement on the issue of Spain’s claim to sovereignty,” he explains. “Things were hugely positive when the trilateral process began, particularly when Miguel Ángel Moratinos [Spain’s foreign minister in the Socialist government of the time] visited Gibraltar in 2009.” He was the first to do so in three centuries.

“Since then it’s been the complete opposite,” Picardo continues. He says the Partido Popular has “fought it out at the frontier” and tried to choke Gibraltar’s economy. “I sincerely hope this relationship will change, and I believe it can,” he tells me. “We should be exploiting our proximity, our cultural nuances and our bilingualism.”

From an economic perspective, Gibraltar has the opportunity to support neighbouring Spanish communities. “Gibraltar creates about 10,000 jobs in the hinterland, and we could easily see that number become 20,000 or 30,000 in a region with 40 per cent unemployment,” Picardo says. “I recently learned that Gibraltar, as an employer, is the third largest in Andalusia. And yet we’re getting whipped daily by Madrid rather than thanked and encouraged to do more.”

Clashes over the territory’s fate might make the most noise internationally, yet most of Picardo’s agenda has been domestic. In fact, he’s trying to reshape the Rock’s entire political system.

Picardo was politicised at an early age – his youth coincided with a decisive time in Gibraltar’s history in the late 1980s, when the outspoken founder of the GSLP, Joe Bossano, was promising a future of self-sufficiency.

“There was a sense at the time that Gib­raltar was emerging,” he recalls. “Bossano’s mantra was that you could not have the right to self-determination if you were not a self-sufficient people. By the late Eighties, Gibraltar had seen the same political party – the AACR [the Association for the Advancement of Civil Rights] – in power for 40 years. Economically, we were moving away from the funding and control of the British Ministry of Defence. We needed to find new industries. Bossano showed us what our future could entail if we were prepared to work hard enough. Everyone felt they had a part to play in that generation, and I saw myself as someone who could advance Gibraltar’s case internationally.”

Picardo studied law and went on to join the GSLP during the 16 years it spent in opposition. From 1996 to 2011 the territory’s governing party was the Gibraltar Social Democrats (GSD), a centre-left party that inherited the socialist direction established by Bossano. Picardo accepts that the economy expanded under the GSD’s leadership but claims that by the end of its term the public had grown restless.

“The people of Gibraltar were craving modernisation. They wanted to see a completely different approach to politics. Under the previous administration, for example, parliament only met two or three times a year, which meant questions raised in January could take until July to answer.”

The GSLP campaigned in 2011 on the slogan “It’s time for change”, armed with a manifesto of commitments 80 pages long.

“Change is the most successful slogan in politics, but you can only deploy it at the right time,” Picardo says shrewdly. “We hit that moment where the people and the opposition party were on the same page, and it resonated.”

Parliament now meets ten times a year and “Chief Minister’s Questions” has become a televised occasion, in keeping with the Westminster tradition. Picardo calls himself “a parliamentarian” and enthusiastically recalls his visit to PMQs earlier that day. “Isn’t it fantastic?” he chuckles. “A real bearpit of a debate!”

His administration advocates an ethos of transparency. Gibraltar’s first Freedom of Information Act is soon to be published, and the government’s Planning and Development Commission has been overhauled to make its proceedings public. Picardo also appointed the Rock’s first Minister for Equalities, Samantha Sacramento, who succeeded in passing the Civil Partnerships Act this March, ending legal discrimination against same-sex unions. “We’ve crossed a Rubicon in Gibraltar,” he says of the new law. “We are moving in a direction of openness.”

Picardo says accountability and debate are what motivated him. “I’m not in politics for something called ‘power’,” he explains. “I’m here because I want that exchange, that accountability. What I love more than anything about being a politician in Gibraltar is that the people never let me forget that I’m just Fabian, that guy they put there. They can remove me whenever they like.”

If being held accountable is what Picardo craves, than he’s governing the right people. Political apathy isn’t in Gibraltar’s vocabulary: voter turnout at election time often exceeds 80 per cent, and those who don’t think the GSLP is setting the right agenda make their opinions known. The strongest voice of discontent comes from the opposition Gibraltar Social Democrats, who have particularly criticised the government’s multimillion-pound public spending plan and the “lack of clarity” in its thinking around the intention to join the Schengen Agreement and the EU’s Customs Union, both of which could affect local business and investment. Although Picardo cuts an affable public figure, many in the GSD camp accuse him of hiding poor policy behind a “populist smokescreen”.

“The time had come when my predecessor [the former Chief Minister and GSD leader] Peter Caruana was too much the protector of his own style,” Picardo says, commenting on the parties’ differences. “Europe had changed a lot while he was in office and a generational shift was needed. I represented that from Peter, just as Peter represented that from Joe [Bossano].”

Of Gibraltar’s culture of debate, he says: “We are 30,000 people with 30,000 opinions. You don’t get people in Gibraltar who think politics doesn’t matter at a national and international level.”
Picardo talks passionately of the territory’s struggles and achievement. You seem proud of Gibraltar, I say.

“I’m proud of Gibraltarians,” he retorts, “but I’m not proud of Gibraltar. I’m in love with Gibraltar. It’s a completely different emotion, and not one that’s exclusively mine. I think that’s the reason we have managed to succeed – all of us have put our shoulder to the wheel and found the role we have to play in advancing our collective cause.”

For more from the NS and Gibraltar media hub visit:

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

Photo: Getty
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Labour on the Rock

The result of the Gibraltar election could hardly have been more decisive, says Guy Clapperton – so what’s going to happen next?

In the end it wasn’t even close. The parties had postured against each other, the clashes over a number of issues came and went and the public voted overwhelmingly for the alliance between Socialist Labour and the Liberals, led by Socialist Labour leader and (still) Chief Minister Fabian Picardo.

Picardo announced plans for the election on 19 October during a speech for the Gibraltar Broadcasting Corporation. It was fully expected as the rules state a government has four years in power and must then dissolve Parliament for an election. There are 17 seats in total and the winning party must therefore hold nine of them. In this instance, the winners won ten as distinct from the Social Democrats’ seven. In terms of sheer numbers it looks like a little more of a wipeout, with 68.52% of the popular vote going to Picardo’s team, a swing of some 19.65%. This was roughly in line with a GBC poll published in November, which predicted a 67% majority.

The first lesson to learn for politicians and pollsters outside Gibraltar, and particularly in the UK, is that we could do with some of those pollsters. Predictions about the last UK general election in May were wildly wrong; whatever the Gib counterparts are having, we’ll take some of that! Obviously it’s easier to keep tabs on a population of 30,000 than one over 6m, but it’s an impressive outcome nonetheless.

Other notable elements to outsiders include the fact that the name of the winning party doesn’t necessarily mean automatically close ties with other Labour Parties throughout the world, and specifically in the UK. The current iteration of the Labour Party in Britain has made positive noises about Gibraltar, but in the early 2000s it was a different story. In the early 2000s, the then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and Prime Minister Tony Blair were reportedly keen to do some sort of deal with the Spanish government on the sovereignty of the Rock – this account in the Independent suggests that Blair may have been actively opposed to the Gibraltarian view. Recent visits to the Rock by the New Statesman suggest that the hostile view of Labour at the time (including jeering of Straw by some residents) has left a residual wariness while visits from former foreign secretary William Hague were welcomed. This should hopefully have been allayed by more recent pronouncements from Shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn.

However, the future may make the similarly-named parties uneasy with each other again. Prime Minister David Cameron is committed to an in/out referendum on Europe by the end of 2017, with many commentators predicting that it will happen in 2016. This might now be contingent on the outcome and consequences of this week’s vote on Syrian intervention but the intention is clear; there will be a decision. Cameron is believed to be pro-Europe but Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been more equivocal, preferring to hold his counsel until Cameron’s negotiations have a clear result. It’s a matter of common sense not to answer a question before its terms are known, but Corbyn’s equivocation might lead the Gibraltarian Labour movement to ally itself more closely with the British Conservatives once again – if the Tories back the “yes” vote, that is. The issue could become more clouded still if Britain opts to remove itself from Europe; Gibraltar wants to stay in. Even if that is sorted out, a British departure could in principle trigger another Scottish independence vote (there is scant evidence to suggest that Scotland wants to leave the EU), and if Scotland were to leave then the structure of Britain itself would change. There would have to be some sort of reassessment of British territories outside the mainland after an event like that.

A side issue on Europe is that UKIP suggested at one point that it would field candidates in the Gibraltar election. This didn’t actually happen in the end.

So in the shorter term it’s likely to be business as usual for the Chief Minister and his cabinet. He has announced one mini-reshuffle and is likely to announce further changes, the Gibraltar Chronicle states, but this is normal in politics. The Socialist Labour and Liberal Coalition has won a further four years in power so it’s effectively an uninterrupted government; the ramifications of what’s happening off the Rock are likely to make those four years feel particularly packed if you’re the re-elected Chief Minister.

Guy Clapperton is the freelance journalist who edits the New Statesman’s Gibraltar hub. You can also find him in the Guardian, Computer Business Review and Professional Outsourcing which he edits.