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Opinion & Analysis

In EU election, Gibraltarian votes matter

A protester reacts as he takes part in the demonstration "One Europe for all", a rally against nationalism across the European Union, in Vienna, Austria, May 19, 2019. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner

When it comes to Thursday's election to the European Parliament, make no mistake: your vote could be decisive.

Yes, I realise this is a platitude that – in theory at least – applies to every election. But on this occasion, there is genuinely scope for Gibraltarian voters to make a real difference as to who represents us in the European Parliament.

To illustrate why, just look back to the last European election in 2014.

On that occasion, just 33% of eligible voters in Gibraltar turned out to vote. Put another way, two out of every three voters did not bother.

The lion's share of support in Gibraltar went to the Liberal Democrats, whose list of candidates back then was topped by Sir Graham Watson, a stalwart champion of Gibraltar in the European Parliament and elsewhere.

The Liberal Democrats obtained just over 160,000 votes in the south west England and Gibraltar region – 4,822 from Gibraltar – but it was not enough to secure one of the six parliamentary seats up for grabs.

Sir Graham, a popular politician among Gibraltarians, lost his seat.

Had more of us turned out to vote, however, the outcome could have been very different.

European elections in the UK are conducted using a method of proportional representation known as the D'Hondt system, named after the Belgian lawyer who devised it in the 19th century.

The basic idea underpinning the system is that a party's total number of votes is divided by a certain figure which increases as it wins more seats, which are allocated on the basis of highest averages. It works like this:

1) The party with the largest number of votes in a region is allocated a seat.

2) The winning party's total number of votes is then divided by two, namely the number of seats they have been allocated, plus one.

3) The vote counts are then reordered using that revised figure and whichever party now has the most votes is allocated the next seat.

4) This process continues, with the vote count of the largest party in each round being divided by the total number of seats they have been allocated so far plus one, until all the seats have been allocated.

In practical terms, it means that after the third or fourth round of counting and allocation of seats, the gaps between different parties are often quite narrow.

That was the case in 2014. In the round of votes that decided who took the sixth seat in the south west and Gibraltar region, the gap between the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party was just 6,071 votes. The Greens won and Sir Graham missed out to Molly Scott-Cato.

Ms Scott-Cato has been an indefatigable anti-Brexit campaigner who has also championed Gibraltar's cause in Brussels and Strasbourg. In that sense, the outcome was not necessarily a bad one for Gibraltar.

But the point is that in a European election, just a small number of votes can deliver a completely different result.

There are 23,736 people in Gibraltar who are registered and eligible to vote in tomorrow's election.

It would send a powerful message if, as a community, we rallied out and ensured a high turnout, whatever we finally decide to vote as individuals.

But why bother if we are leaving the EU? Well, here's the thing: Brexit may not happen.

Prime Minister Theresa May will take her Brexit deal back to the House of Commons for one last vote in early June, but all the signs are that it will be knocked back once again.

In that scenario, and absent another last-minute twist of the sort that has become commonplace in the Brexit saga, MPs in the UK could be left with a binary choice: leave the EU without a deal, or revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU, even if just to buy time and work out how to proceed.

The Commons has already made clear that a majority of MPs are against the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal in place. That makes revocation of Article 50 a distinct possibility.

There is also the possibility of a second referendum somewhere down the line, the outcome of which might also be the UK and Gibraltar remaining in the EU.

If that happens – even if just for a short period while the details of Brexit are worked out – then on Thursday, we have a chance to influence who represents us going into the future.

The EU is not some faceless machine that imposes its rules on us. At its core is a parliament of men and women who we – and citizens just like us all around Europe – choose at the ballot box.

Nigel Farage and his Brexit Party are tipped to win the vote in much of the UK, attracting disgruntled Leave voters from both the Conservative Party and Labour with a clear, unequivocal message.

On the Remain side, the vote will be splintered between several strongly pro-EU parties: the Liberal Democrats, Change UK and the Green Party, many of which will also attract Remain voters from the Tory and Labour camps.

With the Remain vote split, there is much talk about tactical voting to counter the Brexit vote that is rallying behind Farage.

Gina Miller, the businesswoman and activist who has campaigned against Brexit, conducted research through her group Remain United and used data and statistical analysis to identify which Remain-supporting party stands the best chance of winning seats in the European elections on Thursday depending on which region you are in.

For the south west and Gibraltar region, the strongest Remain-backing party are the Liberal Democrats, the research found. For Miller, that is where Remainers should place their vote.

Gibraltarian Remainers have an added incentive in the form of Gibraltarian Lib Dem candidate Luke Stagnetto – albeit with the caveat that there is little possibility of him getting elected given he is sixth on the list.

Another Remain campaign group, Remain Voter, recommends voters in our region to back the Green Party. Their argument is that the Lib Dem seat is secure and backing the Greens would return the highly-visible Molly Scott Cato to the European Parliament.

Ultimately the choice is down to the individual.

For some in this community, the actions of the EU over the past two years, in particular its decision, predictable as it was, to hand Spain a veto in the withdrawal negotiations, have made it impossible to back a party that supports staying in the EU.

But for most of us, the inescapable conclusion in the face of the Brexit turmoil is that Gibraltar - and the UK, for that matter - would face a better future inside the EU than outside, irrespective of everything that has transpired.

This community had to battle to win the right to vote in EU elections and have a say in who represents us in Brussels and Strasbourg.

It took years of legal wrangling and a landmark judgement from the European Court of Human Rights before we were allowed to cast our ballots.

Whoever you decide to back, do not waste that hard-won vote tomorrow.

MAIN PHOTO: A protester reacts as he takes part in a demonstration in Vienna this week. The 'One Europe for all' rally was a protest against the rise of nationalism across the European Union.
REUTERS/Lisi Niesner

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated incorrectly that Luke Stagnetto was 10th on the Liberal Democrats list of candidates. He is sixth in a list of six candidates.