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Opinion & Analysis

For Gibraltar, EU election result requires nuanced reading

Exit poll results are displayed on a screen at the Plenary Hall during the election night for European elections at the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, May 26, 2019. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party may have topped the UK polls in the European election, but Sunday’s result was by no means a victory for Leave.

Conservative infighting and Labour flip-flopping on Brexit led to both parties haemorrhaging votes because of their lack of clarity on the biggest single issue of the day.

For many voters, the EU election was a re-run of the 2016 referendum, and the results showed it.

Brexiteers - including voters who had backed UKIP the last time round - flocked to Farage’s clear and unequivocal message for Leave.

Remainers meanwhile rallied around parties with a pro-EU agenda, in particular the Liberal Democrats and the Greens.

If you remove the Conservatives and Labour from the calculation, the Brexit Party and UKIP secured 35% of the UK vote compared with the 40% won by pro-EU parties.

The UK turnout, meanwhile, was a measly 36.7%, up slightly from the preceding EU election but still paltry given the fundamental issues at stake.

The result of the election, in other words, was largely a draw between Remain-backing and Leave-backing parties, reflecting the deep divisions in a country where most people abstained from voting for whatever reason.

When Farage and his people talk of popular, UK-wide support for their message, be sure to sprinkle that siren call with a liberal handful of salt. The reality is far more nuanced.

It was a similar trend across the EU, where pro-European parties kept a firm grip on the EU parliament as liberal and green parties matched a surge by eurosceptic parties, who won control of a quarter of seats in European elections for the first time.

Looking closer to home, the Brexit Party topped the polls in the south west and Gibraltar region and secured three MEPs.

But the Liberal Democrats and the Green, both firmly pro-EU and anti-Brexit, also secured three MEPs between them.

In terms of the core issue underlying this election, the result of the EU election in the south west and Gibraltar region was once again a draw. The Conservatives and Labour, whose MEPs have championed Gibraltar’s cause in the past, lost their seats.

The result in Gibraltar itself was largely predictable, given not just the fact that we are, broadly-speaking, a Remainer community, but also because there was a Gibraltarian in the Liberal Democrat line-up.

Those two facts alone were enough to secure strong backing, with 77% of the Gibraltarian vote going to the Lib Dems on a 40% turnout.

But the Brexit Party also received significant support locally, securing nearly 8% of the votes.

That reflects the deep unease felt by many here about the way in which the EU has approached the withdrawal negotiations as they relate to Gibraltar.

With the UK leaving the club and Spain remaining a member, the EU’s position may well have been both predictable and inevitable.

But from Spanish vetoes to ‘colony’ references, the EU has turned off many Gibraltarian voters who might otherwise have voted for a Remain-backing party.

Most people in this community believe Gibraltar is better off inside the EU than outside, but on this occasion, the heart trumped the head for many Gibraltarian voters who felt betrayed.

As we move on to the next chapter in this saga, the big questions now remain largely the same as before the election.

Who will take over as leader of the Conservative party and what will they do to break the impasse as the next Brexit deadline of October 31 fast approaches?

Labour will clamour for a general election, but will it finally come off the fence and offer a tangible alternative around which pro-EU voters can rally, or will it be for the Liberal Democrats to take up that mantle?

The Brexiteers will argue that they can renegotiate the exit deal with the EU, but that seems unlikely given what has happened over the past six months.

They will argue too that in the absence of a renegotiated deal, the UK must grit its teeth and leave the EU without agreement, taking a short term hit for long term gain.

But this too seems unlikely, given that parliament has already robustly ruled out a ‘no deal’ Brexit and the economic chaos it would cause.

While ‘no deal’ remains the legal default on October 31 absent a withdrawal agreement, MPs on both sides of the political spectrum will move to stop it from happening.

That leaves a second referendum as an increasingly likely possibility, both to resolve the impasse of Brexit and as a first step to healing the wounds of a deeply divided country.

Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary, Sir Keir Starmer, acknowledged the mauling his party had been subjected to and said a second referendum was now the "only way" to break the Brexit impasse.

As senior Labour figures called for the party to take a more strident position, Sir Keir said the public should now be given the choice between a "credible leave option and remain”.

For Gibraltar, this remains a complex and shifting political landscape in which to navigate, riddled as it is with pitfalls and challenges.

The work that has been done over the past two years building strong relationships with all parties in the UK, irrespective of their positions on Brexit, will serve us well in the coming months.

And despite the uncertainty, there is room for cautious optimism.

While the results of the EU election showed a surge in support for Farage, there was also a groundswell of pro-EU sentiment.

Brexit is far from decided and the UK may yet pull back from the brink, or at least take steps to soften the landing if departure is the final outcome.

There was some good news too from Spain, where the Socialists led by Pedro Sanchez consolidated their position by topping the EU polls and winning council seats in communities across the country.

The far right party Vox won just three seats in the European Parliament, compared to the PSOE’s 20, the PP’s 12, Ciudadanos with seven and Unidas Podemos with six.

La Linea’s Juan Franco, who has forged strong ties with the Gibraltar Government since coming into office four years, consolidated his position with a resounding win that delivered 21 seats in a 25-seat council for his La Linea 100x100 party.

There had been fears that Vox, with its strident anti-Gibraltar rhetoric, might rear its ugly head in La Linea and win seats in the city council, but in the end it came to nothing.

Against the continued uncertainty of Brexit upheaval, a Socialist government in Madrid with solid representation in the EU, coupled to a friendly mayor in La Linea who understands the importance of good cross-border relations, is about as much as we could have hoped for on Sunday.


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