by Maurice Xiberras
Having urged the Chief Minister to ‘keep the head’ when the threat of Brexit first broke out, it may sound a contradiction to own up and say that I myself have scarcely had a good night’s sleep since! There is of course no contradiction.
President Richard Nixon (“Six Crises”) made the point decades and decades ago: faced with any one of his crises, he would sleep little, until he had defined the problem in his own mind and resolved what course of action or options he could or might pursue. Gibraltar needs to be worried: Brexit would present Gibraltar (and the region) with a crisis.
In the UK, to describe the arguments against Brexit as ‘project fear’ is little more than a political device by ‘Leave’, with too much traction, to counter what may be perfectly justified fears, warnings and powerful arguments coming from all over the world to the other, advising of the consequences of Brexit, not only for the UK but for Europe and the wider world. If only the ‘fears’ in the so-called ‘project fear’ were not real, I and many others would sleep better! It is plain denial, it is plain denial.
Both sides are trading mere ‘projections’, it is said; but as anyone who has to make decisions concerning the future knows, some “projections” are more soundly based than others. Otherwise, whether in business or our daily lives or our children’s future, we may as well just toss a coin.
All in all, in the UK, it is still the case that Brexit would be a ‘leap in the dark’, and the fall could be a long one and the landing a hard one. Not the most profound of thoughts, I would agree, but a fundamental consideration, when so much is at stake.
For Gibraltar, however, which has ever been my fundamental concern and the lens through which I have seen all international developments – whether I have been or lived in Gibraltar or in the UK – Brexit would not be a ‘leap in the dark’, not a propagandistic projection.
When our political leaders describe Brexit as ‘a disaster’ or an ‘existential threat’, they are not motivated by party-political considerations or point scoring. They are agreed that Brexit would present Gibraltar with a political and economic crisis, comparable in my estimation, to those other critical situations that have rocked our community over many decades. I am old enough to have lived through more than one of them.
Moreover, for Gibraltar the consequences of Brexit would be more immediate and fundamental than for most parts of the UK, not to say any part. These consequences and threats are not mere projections; they are the realities of tomorrow – if Brexit.
And it is ridiculous nonsense to state that our political leaders, do not have an ‘in depth’ knowledge of the situation’ or to see as some sort of weakness or flaw in our democracy that ‘the man and woman in the street’ will follow these ignorant leaders. To our leaders, I would add the score of representative bodies, who have come out so strongly against Brexit. This unfortunately was Professor Abecasis’s contention on these pages last month.
But over and above the clearly expressed views of our leaders, Gibraltar, like many small communities, has developed an instinct for making the right decision in critical times, as David Bentata, has eloquently stated on these pages. That is the voice of Gibraltar on this issue.
Unity not Complacency
But this near unanimity of views and purpose in Gibraltar on this critical issue must not become complacency – just leave it to our leaders.
Before the 23rd June and on the 23rd June, we have one real shot in our locker to make Gibraltar’s view known, felt and recorded, as Gibraltar did historically in 1967 and 2002, and I mean all voters in Gibraltar.
I believe that the crisis that confronts us is of the same order as 1969 and 2002. I urge voters – all voters - to see it as such, and to respond as Gibraltar did in 1969 and 2002.
1969 threatened the death of British Gibraltar by a thousand cuts, a campaign by the Franco Government to strangle our economy, unless and until the UK Government and Gibraltar agreed to negotiate on sovereignty. In 2002, Spanish Government, emboldened by their membership of the EEC and NATO moved in again on our British sovereignty – the Joint Sovereignty proposals – this time with the agreement of the Blair Government.
On both occasions there were UK Ministers and others in the UK, who gave comfort and more, to Spanish aims. It was UK Ministers we had to fight. But in both crises the wide UK public and the media were behind us and behind a British Gibraltar, in accordance with our wishes. What squashed Blair and Straw’s nefarious proposals was the 2002 Referendum and all that accompanied it (“Hands Around the Rock etc) which drew the attention of the world to Gibraltar’s wishes.
The situation is in some respects dangerously different in 2016. This time, the If the vote is for Brexit, cannot to blame or confront the UK Government; the Prime Minister and the Government are on our side and for ‘Remain’. This time, the critical threat to Gibraltar’s interests arises from the potential majority of ordinary voters, MPS and a UK Ministers, many of whom, including proven friends of Gibraltar, will not be voting in Gibraltar’s vital interests, but in the interests of the UK, as they see it. Even these, would not abandon Gibraltar on Brexit, as the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary, and the Foreign Affairs Committee, with almost an equal number of Brixeteers, have assured us in terms perhaps without precednt. We cannot therefore inveigh against the UK Government this time; we can only disagree vehemently and uncompromisingly with the Brixeteers. Nonetheless, crisis it is.
The crisis arises from the reality that – out of Europe, with Spain in – the UK will not be able to counter the campaign that successive Spanish Government and other ‘favourable’ government, angry with the UK’s withdrawal or pursuing their own anachronistic, un-European, will wage against Gibraltar inside the EU at every conceivable opportunity on the many issues, on which British Gibraltar has found support from the EU through Britain’s actions. And the crisis arises from the fact that this dynamic, which works so seriously against Gibraltar, will not be reversible in our lifetimes, if the vote is for Brexit.
In the negotiations that would follow Brexit, the UK Government would argue Gibraltar’s corner and Gibraltar’s interests – we have that assurance. But if Brexit, any UK Government will have to renegotiate all manner of relationships with the EU from a position of weakness – from outside as it were, with no ‘membership rights’. Spain (a member-state) would object to any concessions being made to Gibraltar. The Spanish policy would be one of death by a thousand cuts in the conference rooms of the EU and at the frontier. And the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will be in a position of great influence.
That is why the vote on the 23rd June will be a vote for British Gibraltar, and it is critical.
If Gibraltar understands this situation clearly and without wishful thinking or illusions that Gibraltar would be able to negotiate a separate status for Gibraltar in this negotiations, a thought our Government has now discarded, Gibraltar must vote on the 23rd June as it did in 1969 and 2002.
It is not arithmetical fact but a pretty reliable ‘projection’ that 23,000 Gibraltar voters (not even 30,000, as I wrongly stated) will not be decisive in the overall total, and this is the main source of my/our anxiety.
In the UK, voting behaviour cannot be predicted with the old accuracy, which adds not only to my curiosity, but also to my anxiety, and no doubt to yours. The country is more politically fragmented on this issue, than Scotland was over Scottish independence; parties are divided; Jeremy Corbyn is lukewarm; the labour vote teeters. Gibraltar can hope but not expect Remain to win.
Yet Gibraltar’s future depends on the result, and must face the crisis but courageously with the means at our disposal. That is why I choose to regard this referendum as “Gibraltar’s Referendum” – a separate exercise from the UK’s, like the other famous ones we have held. I know it is not legally the position, but that cannot be changed. We must confront the crisis with what we’ve got. And that, as in 1967 and 2002, means making this Gibraltar’s own separate Referendum, and to support this ‘will of the people’ act with all the ‘noise’ of 1967 and 2002, so that no-one in the UK can claim that the people fo Gibraltar are in any doubt about what would be best for them.
And if the turn-out is as high as in our previous efforts, and the vote is as decisive as in 1967 and 2002, its subsequent political value in the negotiations that will follow, if Brexit, will be inestimable.
British Gibraltar would not be finished. Belts would have to tightened, but the economy would not collapse, as Peter Schirmer has written in this newspaper. The UK will help would have to help and will help. And as we did after 1969, Gibraltar will find a way. But it would be a great mistake to rely on that now. It is essential make the 23rd June our undivided focus.
Vote as if Gibraltar’s life depended on it. Vote with ‘passion and conviction’. Vote to achieve the majorities achieved in 1967 and 2002. And vote in the knowledge of what is at stake.