Things have changed dramatically for Gibraltarians in Europe over the last 11 years. First the country gained direct representation in the European Parliament, and it’s as a development of this that it has established a new office in Brussels. Gibraltar House has opened in the last few months, headed up by the former MEP whose constituency included the Rock, Sir Graham Watson.
“The [Gibraltar] government recognised that Europe was becoming more and more important to the governance of Gibraltar as Europe expands,” he said. “It had maintained a small maintained Regus office in Brussels for over ten years, with one Belgian clerical employee.”
This small office sat awkwardly with the country’s status as having proper representation, which had followed a test case from a Gibraltarian woman who had complained that being required to follow European law without a vote was wrong. “That led to Gibraltar being added to the South West England constituency,” explained Sir Graham. The government came to recognise the sort of influence it could have and the sort of information that could be gathered by being on the spot in Brussels. “Increasingly, under its own 2006 constitution, Gibraltar became responsible not only for the transposition of European law but for its implementation, and it recognised the need for representation here.”
The new operation started small. Sir Graham became available last summer and the government approached him to start planning for the new office. He deliberately started small so others could build on it later. The house the government bought for the purpose is around ten minutes’ walk from the EU Parliament, it has the Gib and Europe flags hanging on the front and functions as a small office. The clerical worker remains, there is a lawyer from the European Union and international department of the government and two interns, plus of course Sir Graham. For the moment he doesn’t see any need for a larger operation. “It mustn’t be too much of a burden on the tax payer,” he said.
For the tasks ahead a small team is apropriate. The office prepares for visits from ministers from Gibraltar, also from government agencies. It facilitates visits to Gib by MEPs and commissioners and carries out what Sir Graham calls soft promotion: “Raising Gibraltarian issues among people who are neither British or Spanish. The Brits and the Spanish understand them relatively well, the Hungarians and the Latvians are fairly unaware of Gibraltar. We have to increase that awareness so we can get support on things like the single European sky issue.”
So it’s not comparable to the British version of Gibraltar House in London – which is a bigger set-up. It also has an informal role of helping Gibraltarians in need of, for example, hospital treatment. The establishment in Brussels is much more of a government to government operation. “Our focus is very much on European institutions, the commission, the parliament, the European Investment Bank, which has supported some businesses in Gibraltar.”
For something that’s so new (the official opening was at the end of May) it’s doing a lot. “The deputy chief minister, who is now the minister for European affairs, made a speech during the budget debate and outlined the various initiatives that have taken place. We’ve had two visits from the deputy chief minister, one visit from the chief minister, a visit from the head of the financial services commission. We’re working on a programme of familiarisation with the European union from civil servants in the various departments in the government in Gibraltar. We’ve arranged a visit to Gibraltar for the chairman of the petitions committee in European Parliament, we’ve arranged visits for a number of the Parliamentary assistants working in areas where Gibraltar is an issue, and we have a visit planned by the deputy chairman of the transport committee.”
It’s a remarkable amount of involvement for someone whose connection with the peninsula before it was added to his constituency as an MEP was a fleeting stopover aged seven en route to visit his father in Malta, where Watson Senior was on duty as a naval officer. “In the years from 2004 to 2014 when I represented Gibraltar as well as the South West of England, I did invest a lot of time in getting to know the people of Gibraltar and the issues they face,” he said. “You might say I invested rather too much, because when I faced the election last year 66% of the voters in Gibraltar voted for me while only just over 10% of my English constituents did so!”
An English Liberal Democrat losing a seat might just be part of a bigger picture, but the issues that appealed to Sir Graham were classic liberal ones, he suggests. “People there face issues of discrimination, even discrimination by the Gibraltar government when there was no office of fair trading.” The new government elected in 2011 made a lot of progressing towards a modern Gibraltar, he believes: for example, Gibraltar now complies with every European directive, for example, and may be the only part of the EU to do so.
The timing of the new premises is striking. Conservatives win UK election, in/out referendum and oh look, there’s a Gibraltar House in the heart of Europe within weeks. Coincidence? “The idea of having an office in Brussels has been in the minds of the chief minister and deputy chief minister for quite some time,” says Sir Graham. “But I think the idea you’re expressing has some salience. The chief minister said himself in an article in the Financial Times last month, Gibraltarians will have the right to vote in the referendum, and as the First Minister of Scotland says too, if the vote went against Britain remaining in but overwhelmingly the Gibraltarian vote was for staying, this would lead to Gibraltar reconsidering its own future.
“As part of the continent of Europe it would be deeply damaging to Gibraltar’s economy to leave the European Union. Proportionately it would be have a far greater effect than the effect on the United Kingdom.”