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Opinion & Analysis

Gibraltar rock reveals the rubble of democracy

by Shelina Assomull

Gibraltar doesn’t appear in the international news very often, but recently it entered the spotlight. As the Brexit process commences, Gibraltarians have found themselves at the hands of an unfairly played card, by democratic standards. In the first draft of the Brexit negotiating guidelines came a single clause with a large impact; the EU has stepped behind excluding Gibraltar from any agreements reached between the EU and the United Kingdom, unless Spain is in agreement with it. This is a futile exercise, as Gibraltarians know all too well, following an age old feud over the sovereignty of the Rock.

The EU handing Spain this veto card on the future of the Brexit talks in the name of ‘defending their member state’ came as somewhat of a shock to many. Whilst coverage events has included sensational stories and falsehoods, namely war-mongering rhetoric from Lord Howard, there has been a lack of empathy for the Gibraltarian position in what will likely be a period of discomfort and uncertainty for its citizens, verging on an existential crisis.

The Brexit referendum was promoted as the ultimate democratic vote. But, was it? Committing the United Kingdom to leave the EU not only ties the current population to the result, but also the generations to come. Elections are cyclical because democracy is about ensuring that the people’s choice is frequently considered, and about allowing them to change their mind should they feel their decisions were wrong, or rather wrongly implemented; but a decision that carries such permanence as Brexit does is quite a different thing.

Rightly or wrongly, referendums have come to be seen as the ultimate exercise of democracy. Ironically, however, in the case of Brexit the referendum ended up undermining democracy. Political campaigns in this battle often misconstrued and at times blatantly lied about its possible outcomes, not to mention the unintended and undesirable consequences, or “collateral victims”. The ‘Leave’ campaign even called for Gibraltar’s support in a tweet claiming it would be better off without the EU – a position entirely rejected as shown by the Rock’s overwhelming vote to remain.

The debate surrounding the referendum’s democratic credentials has resurfaced over the Gibraltar question. Gibraltar voted 96% to remain in the EU, and now its sovereignty is under scrutiny as a result of a decision made by 52%in UK, a result that becomes even more questionable if we consider that the turnout was 72.2%, and thus less than 1 out of 3 potential voters voted to leave - 15,188,406 out of a total census of 46,501,241 voters. The Rock made its democratic decision very clear, but yet it is being forced out of the EU against its wishes as it witnesses the UK’s electorate completely dwarf its own. Of course, the British demos is constituted by all citizens within its borders and, thus, there is not a Gibraltarian demos of its own, as such. Yet, it evidently contradicts the will of the people as far as their status as Gibraltarians goes, but not their Britishness.

The Gibraltar situation is peculiar, because contrary to the global shift towards independence, it wishes to maintain its British ties and sovereignty, perhaps because its self-governing body politic does not share the same historical roots as the UK’s past colonies. The Gibraltar Constitutional Order 2006 granted Gibraltar with a modern political relationship with the United Kingdom, since which it has been able to engage in tripartite agreements that have allowed its interests to be voiced, voted and vetoed. When recognised at this level, Gibraltar has been given the ability to be anything but neglected. However, the EU referendum has exposed the cracks in this relationship by reverting it to its colonial core. As this act commences in the name of democracy, it entirely disregards their wishes as they sit, wait, wonder and witness the most remarkably undemocratic act within a democracy taking place.
Theresa May promises the best for these proudly British citizens, but throughout all of the exchanges and reassurances that have taken place in the last few days, there still remains an air of mistrust, and every Gibraltarian can smell it. As they put their faith in the hands of the ‘democratic majority’ an unanswered question remains: why wasn’t Gibraltar included in Theresa May’s letter triggering Article 50?

There is a feeling of betrayal lingering after the shock caused by the fact of not being included in that letter. At the same time, there is also an urgent need on the part of Gibraltarians for their counterparts in the United Kingdom to rise up to the challenge of defending their territory. It is this paradox of needing them more than ever whilst also appearing neglected, which leads Gibraltarians towards much unwelcomed uncertainty.

Neo-colonialism rears its ugly head when things are put into black and white: Gibraltar appears to be a bargaining chip. The fact that Gibraltar derives from colonialism, should not mean that it is exempt from democratic equality. While both Britain and Spain fight for it, why should it still be ‘it’, a possession to be owned by one or the other, without having a say? When reduced to a piece of property on the negotiating table, it becomes apparent that there is a question of whether the mind-set of colonialism has evolved with the mind-set of democracy.
The institution that arrived as the pinnacle of democracy is in fact the EU, founded on principles of democratic unity and pro diversity: “United in diversity” reads its motto. In the EU, “Human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights are the core values”, but the suggestion that bilateral talks between Spain and the United Kingdom should decide the future of Gibraltar, without Gibraltar even needing to be present, seems so far from democratic it has shocked many. The EU is neglecting an entire people’s democratic wishes in its game of chess. Is this in accordance with EU values? Raising the issue of Gibraltar’s sovereignty revives a clash in nationalism by forcing two countries into opposition – something the EU has long fought to dissolve.

When we were all a part of the European Union, the problem was diluted: on the Gibraltar dispute, Spain and Gibraltar were enemies on the same team and, although it wasn’t always plain sailing, there was at least a sense of stability - the perfect example of the EU’s struggle towards a common destiny. But now Gibraltar (unwillingly) finds itself on the other side of the fence and it seems as if those values do not matter anymore. The EU values are values to be adhered to at all times. With emerging populist rhetoric around Europe and an increasing divide between neighbouring countries, the EU has lately witnessed a re-nationalisation and finds itself at a critical moment.

As the next big thing in the Brexit negotiations erupts and the Rock fades from the news headlines, the question of whether it is possible for Gibraltar to ‘belong’ to any given state and still have the democratic right to decide on its own future will remain – that is the toughest issue ahead for Gibraltarians. Who is to care about Gibraltar’s rights and its future? Although the United Kingdom has stepped up to the challenge, this initial free-fall has only provided Gibraltarians with more doubt as they second-guess what is to come. Whilst it may seem as if the Rock is short of friends as it faces one of its toughest challenges in recent history, the only guarantee is the fierceness and drive of this community to hold on to their rights at any cost. And time will tell: it may just be enough to achieve the democratic respect that we have long deserved.

Shelina Assomull is a Gibraltarian master’s student of International Relations at the Barcelona Institute of International Studies (IBEI) in Spain.

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