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11 May 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 12:01pm

The Brexit debate must stop ignoring Gibraltar

Gibraltar didn’t ask for this referendum but we did have to take the British government to the European Court of Human Rights in 1999 to win our right to vote in European Parliamentary elections.

By Fabian Picardo

A thousand miles south of Penzance 23,000 Gibraltar residents will have the chance to vote in the referendum on our future in Europe which was called by the prime minister David Cameron for June 23rd.

As the socialist leader of the Rock, it’s just a little frustrating to watch the constant oscillation of the largely 50/50 balance between the predicted remain and stay votes.

Gibraltar didn’t ask for this referendum but we did have to take the British government to the European Court of Human Rights in 1999 to win our right to vote in European Parliamentary elections. And then defeat the inevitable objection from Spain in the European Court of Justice.

Consequently, we have since 2004 been a combined region with the South West of England. So Penzance is actually a lot closer to us than geography dictates. That’s why we are voting now with the rest of the United Kingdom.

In June we will vote I expect with a large turnout but with little chance of swinging the result. But at least we do have a platform to remind Britain that we have no desire to return to the politics of Empire. We are not a far flung ‘pink bit’ for neo-colonialists of the left to dispose of as Tony Blair once tried.

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Gibraltar is a modern, well run, highly regulated jurisdiction happy to open its doors to scrutiny.

We have worked hard to comply with the demands placed on us by Brussels. The people of Gibraltar have an entitlement to retain the European rights for which we have worked and fought.

Whilst we have good MEP friends in our region right across the political spectrum, and close relations with the Labour movement, I can’t help feeling that Britain’s left and centre left has been caught napping. It’s just weeks to go for potentially one of the most game-changing events in decades.

The EU referendum is hurling towards us like a meteorite with an unpredictable path. Gibraltar may be a very small country but the improvements to workers’ rights, hard fought for by a very active local trades union movement, have largely been protected and enhanced by the fact that we are an integral part of the European Union.

This isn’t just because of the directives on issues such as working hours, paternity and maternity leave or even because the European Union so often put the rights of individuals and protection of their mental and physical wellbeing as its priority.

The EU has been at the heart of our commercial success in a fast changing economic world.

Gibraltar has not enjoyed the scale of transformational financial aid that in the late 1980s and 1990s saw parts of southern Europe, such as neighbouring Andalusia, transform dirt tracks into highways. But we were disciplined by Europe to transform an old style ‘tax haven’ into a modern, successful and compliant financial centre. The open border allows tourism to flow and a third of our workforce is made up of Spaniards who cross in each day earning the equal pay that EU laws protect for them too.

Despite the clichés that live on in some British media, Gibraltar has not been a tax haven for decades. It has been scrutinised and recognised by the OECD, IMF and other international bodies and the European Commission itself, as well regulated and responsible.

We will continue with the compliance that has seen us ranked alongside the standards of the City of London and removed from blacklists around the world. I have now gone even further and have given PM Cameron ‎and the Chancellor George Osborne a commitment to join in the G5 global standard for exchange of lists of beneficial ownership. 

The benefit of EU membership is that freedom of movement of people, goods and services has opened many doors and opportunities that have allowed us to ‘passport’ financial services such as insurance and banking into Europe and the UK. It has also meant that Spain has been restrained on just how much it can make life difficult for us at the border in pursuit of its tiresome and outdated sovereignty claim.

The common protection that the EU brings, despite the challenges and legal battles, has meant overall progress for Gibraltar and surely most of Europe including the United Kingdom.

When people like the Stronger In campaign and British Influence laud the benefits of membership  – jobs, security, equal pay, cheaper supermarket prices, better quality control, cheaper travel, paid maternity leave, workers holiday leave, protection of women’s rights – these are achievements for which the left generally has, for over a century, been fighting. Many of the vociferous ‘leave’ campaigners would, I am sure, eagerly dilute these hard-won benefits if they were in power after a Brexit.

Would Gibraltar sink after a Brexit? Would we succumb to pressure from Spain to compromise our sovereignty and freedoms? No, resoundingly no.

We will fight on and we will build a new economic model where and how we need to. But let’s not go there. Together the British family – England, Scotland and Wales, the United Kingdom, can go forward prosperously in a changing EU.

But where is the voice of the left to wake up its voters of all ages? Where is the call across the British nations to get out there and tick that ‘Remain’ box?

OECD secretary-general Angel Gurria, whose tough scrutiny we subject to, makes the point that leaving the EU would be the equivalent of imposing an additional “tax” of one month’s income on UK workers. That would be true for Gibraltarian and 7,000 Spanish workers who commute in to work each day from the hinterland.

The shrill voices of the far right are pushing us each day unbearably closer to a Brexit and little Gibraltar will not be the only loser as they pursue their worrying vision of, as Tristam Hunt so succinctly put it in the New Statesman “a turbo-capitalist destiny”.

Fabian Picardo is Chief Minister of Gibraltar and leader of the Gibraltar Socialist Labour Party.

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