Special Interview Feature
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.”