Commons support for Gib will endure Brexit debate
Gibraltar’s cross-party support in the House of Commons will “absolutely not” be damaged by heated exchanges in the run-up to the EU referendum, according to two MPs with longstanding links to the Rock.
Conservative Bob Neill and Ian Paisley, of the Democratic Unionist Party, said British MPs across the political spectrum would continue to fight Gibraltar’s corner whether in or out of the EU.
They were speaking after Chief Minister Fabian Picardo suggested in a recent interview that backing a Brexit was incompatible with being a “a real friend” of Gibraltar.
Those comments placed Mr Picardo at odds with some of Gibraltar’s staunchest supporters in the Commons, including Conservative MPs Andrew Rosindell and Jack Lopresti, the chairman of the Gibraltar all party parliamentary group.
But as the exchanges on EU membership intensify ahead of the June 23 vote, the view of other MPs on both sides of the debate is practical.
“You’ve got cross-party support for Gibraltar’s right to self-determination and for its continuous British link, and for that to be maintained,” Mr Paisley, who is backing the Leave campaign, told the Chronicle.
“The fact of the matter is Gibraltar will be part of our trading nation and we don’t intend to do anything that would damage that…”
“But [the people of Gibraltar] will recognise that we’ve got to take a decision that’s in the interest of the United Kingdom primarily,” he added.
“Recognising that…there is integrity in that point of view I think will serve to build our relationship, not to damage it.”
“I get the impression that there is a respect for the other man’s point of view and to recognise that this is not a black and white issue, that there’s an awful lot of grey.”
Mr Picardo is due to address MPs in the Gibraltar group in the coming weeks ahead of the referendum.
Key members of the group are split roughly 50/50 on whether to Remain in the EU or to leave.
Mr Neill, the secretary of the Gibraltar parliamentary group, will be voting to remain in the EU.
“I accept Ian’s good faith, as I do of any of my colleagues on the group who are in favour of Brexit, but I do think that they’re wrong,” Mr Neill said.
“Although there are things I want to see changed in Europe, I don’t think you walk away from a market of 500 million people…just because it’s not perfect.”
“Any businessman would say you stay in the market and you seek to improve it.”
And on Gibraltar, he added: “I accept the good faith of everybody [because] we all want to work for the best for Gibraltar, and I accept Spain probably will continue to behave badly towards Gibraltar whether we’re in or whether we’re out.”
“But I do think leaving would complicate things very greatly for Gibraltar…”
Mr Paisley, echoing the core sovereignty argument underpinning the Leave campaign, said he wanted a situation where the UK was able to make its own decisions and spend its money “our way”.
He said the EU was “broken beyond repair” and Britain could forge a better path on its own.
That view is at odds with the broad position on the referendum across all areas of Gibraltarian society, which according to a Chronicle poll will turn out in force to vote to remain in the EU.
Like many other MPs on the Gibraltar group, Mr Paisley has visited the Rock and said he understands the issues facing this community.
In setting out his arguments, he acknowledged that the overwhelming sentiment in Gibraltar is to vote to remain in the EU over concerns about the economy and Spain.
But he said the Spanish government had always tried to exploit Gibraltar’s position, whether in or out of Europe.
“Spain has acted in an atrocious fashion towards Gibraltar and the people of Gibraltar and they do not need the EU referendum as an excuse, irrespective of the result, to continue being meddling neighbours instead of good neighbours,” he said.
The Northern Ireland MP also acknowledged Gibraltar’s concerns over the economy and the uncertainty as to what lay outside the EU for the local economy.
“There’s no guarantees in any of this,” he said.
“What you have is goodwill, people with a mandate and a compassion to make sure that Gibraltar is properly treated in all of this.”
“Europe needs Britain, it needs the United Kingdom, and as long as Gibraltar remains under our wing, it will benefit from that relationship.”
Mr Neill’s position in the debate contrasted with that of his colleague and reflected the arguments put forward by politicians, business and community leaders in Gibraltar.
A Brexit would create uncertainty both economically and in terms of the Rock’s relations with Spain, he said.
Outside the EU, Gibraltar and the UK would not be able to call on Brussels to rein in the Spanish government’s excesses at the border.
“That’s an important safeguard that wouldn’t be there,” Mr Neill said.
“We might be able to negotiate something for the future, but we don't know how long it would take and on what terms.”
“That period of uncertainty would give licence to the Spaniards to behave even more badly without the threat of legal comeback.”
Mr Neill also highlighted the possible broader impact of a Brexit on Gibraltar’s economy, in particular on financial services.
The Tory MP, many of whose Bromley and Chislehurst constituents work in the City of London, said EU membership enabled the UK and Gibraltar to sell services across the single market.
And while there was more work to do to improve market access in this sector, “…if we are out, we lose that automatic right to passporting.”
“If we lose the right to access the European single market in financial services, no doubt we would seek to renegotiate it…but we don’t know on what terms or how long it would take,” he said.
“The uncertainty in the interim would be great and while that would be difficult for the UK but perhaps absorbable, it would be even harder for a very small economy like Gibraltar.”