Gibraltar has a long history of defending itself, so the latest threat raised by Brexit will not faze the Rock’s inhabitants, chief minister Fabian Picardo tells Alec Marsh
The brass barrels of a pair of 18-pounders have been polished to a very, very high shine in the small square in front of the offices of Her Majesty’s government of Gibraltar. The mercury, meanwhile, is over 30°C, a reminder that while there might be a red pillar box around the corner, we’re barely 15 miles from Africa. Inside, there is a clay head of the Queen from the Seventies and a contemporary portrait of her painted, it turns out, by a renowned Gibraltarian artist, in which dribbles descend from her hair and crown against an aquamarine background.
‘It’s one of those Marmite things,’ remarks the security guard. ‘Personally, I love it.’ Who painted it? ‘It’s my cousin’s son,’ replies the other guard, who momentarily can’t place the name and reaches for his specs to check his phone. Welcome to Gibraltar, a place as British as Brighton Rock, where everyone seemingly knows each other. ‘Hook,’ sighs the guard after a moment. ‘Christian Hook.’
Minutes later Fabian Picardo, the chief minister of Gibraltar, arrives in the stately, air-conditioned cabinet room, dressed in a lightweight blue suit (from Debenhams, no less, though not the one that’s recently opened in Gibraltar) without a tie. He seems fittingly attired for the Mediterranean climate, but it’s also quickly apparent that Picardo, 45, has the sunny disposition to match.
Which is presumably helpful for a politician who, having led the government of Gibraltar since 2011, was re-elected to a second term in 2015 only to find himself facing the unenviable task of leading Gibraltar through its own colonial (that is to say, once-removed) species of Brexit. He also has to deal with the minefield of its relations with Spain.
Fortunately he’s optimistic for Gibraltar’s future, even if at the same time he’s pessimistic about Brexit’s implications for the mother country: ‘It’s going to be very difficult for the UK to get a deal from the European Commission that
addresses all the concerns and aspirations that those who defended leaving the European Union put during the referendum campaign,’ Picardo notes. ‘It is becoming abundantly clear that it is not possible to have access to the single market if you don’t accept the four freedoms, in particular freedom of movement for persons.’
As a result, states Picardo, a barrister by profession: ‘We’ll be able to have a trading relationship with the single market, but that trading relationship does not amount to access to the market in the privileged way that you have had until today. When it comes to financial services, and services generally in the UK… having a trading relationship with the single market will not be enough for the United Kingdom.’
He nonetheless sticks to the script like a good democrat. ‘Whatever we think about what the Brexiteers said or did,’ he says, ‘they won. We have to help them deliver the objective now, whether or not we think it’s an objective which is in the interests of the UK or not. The public made the decision.’
Except they didn’t, not in tiny Gibraltar, where 96 per cent of voters opted to stay in the EU, making the Rock the most pro-European corner of Britain – not a way of putting it that you’ll find in a Spanish newspaper. Gibraltar’s thwarted Europhilia, however, does not appear to bother Picardo, nor dent Gibraltar’s commitment to Britain.
‘What we want to see now is an acceptance by the European Union of the decision of the whole of the British people,’ states Picardo, who clearly disapproves of some of Brussels’ positioning. ‘We voted one way, but the whole of the British people voted another way altogether. There has to be respect for that, and if there is respect for that, then what we want to see is that the negotiating team led by David Davis is able to deliver for the United Kingdom a new trading relationship with the EU that is good also for and extends to Gibraltar, and does not accept the position that Spain has intended to put that it should have a second veto in relation to the application of that deal to Gibraltar.’
So what ‘Brexit’ would Picardo like to see? ‘I don’t think one size fits all, but Norway is a working model which could potentially resolve a lot of the issues which appear difficult to resolve today,’ he says, conceding that ‘it requires acceptance of the four freedoms’ and would also make Britain a ‘rule taker in the single market’.
Post-Brexit he wants Gibraltar and its businesses to retain access to the UK on the current basis (plus equal access with the UK on any future trade deals with third parties), as well as the preservation of the ‘free-flowing’ border with Spain and the EU. With this in mind, the government’s pact with the Democratic Unionist Party must be music to his ears, given their insistence on an open border on the island of Ireland. ‘Gibraltar is in a slightly more complex position,’ he counters, pointing out that the two territories enjoyed a common travel area prior to the EU. ‘But it is true that the Republic of Ireland is an example of how you’ll behave if you want to bring good faith to bear on future arrangements.’
Which brings us to our friends in Madrid. When the King of Spain visited Britain in July he prompted anger on the Rock by implying that its people would not be parties to any future discussion of their fate. Picardo recalls: ‘“Our two governments,” he said, not realising that Her Majesty has more than one government that’s relevant here – in particular Her Majesty’s government of Gibraltar, so it’s three governments. In the prepared text it said “Our governments”. When he delivered it, he said, “Our two governments,” which was an unnecessary provocation, and I thought it was disrespectful to the United Kingdom to try to play that game in front of parliamentarians, but it was rightly dealt with in a very restrained way by Her Majesty, who made it clear that there are some things which we’re just not going to see eye-to-eye on.’
The sovereignty of Gibraltar, British territory since 1713 (so for six decades longer than the USA has been around), is not one of those things. Well, not so far: but does Picardo worry what the Brexit negotiations between London and Brussels (and Madrid, Paris and Berlin) might bring?
‘Gibraltar is not going to become a bargaining chip because the people of Gibraltar do not accept that anybody should even think that we can be a bargaining chip,’ he says firmly. ‘The future of Gibraltar will be determined exclusively by the people of Gibraltar in exercise of their internationally recognised right of self-determination and in partnership with the United Kingdom. And I have yet to meet somebody with the right to vote in Gibraltar who argues the contrary.’ And it’s a fair bet that Picardo has met a very high percentage of his voters.
This also underscores the words and spirit of the Lisbon Agreement on Gibraltar between Britain and Spain in 1980, one that foreshadowed the latter’s accession to the then EEC and Nato, and which led to the eventual opening of the land border after it had been closed by Spain for 16 years until 1985 (the so-called ‘15th siege of Gibraltar’, according to former governor Sir William Jackson).
So Picardo must have been cock-a-hoop about the Queen’s ‘eye-to-eye’ rebuff to Felipe VI? If he was, he doesn’t show it: ‘The relationship between Gibraltar and the Crown has always been a deeply respectful one,’ the chief minister says with a mortician’s gravity. ‘We have never felt let down by Her Majesty.’ What about the fact that she hasn’t visited the Rock since 1954 – presumably to avoid provoking tensions with Spain? Would he like the Queen to pay Gibraltar another visit? Picardo laughs. ‘Of course we would,’ he says, beaming. ‘We would like her to live here.’ Quite what that would do for Anglo-Spanish relations can only be guessed at.
But while we’re at it, Picardo would like other HNW Britons to consider making a home for themselves in Gibraltar, too: ‘If you were saying to yourself, “I may want to settle in the European sun, in a place that is going to not punish me for being wealthy – is going to welcome me because I’m wealthy – is going to be an attractive place from which to invest internationally, and I’d like to own property, enjoy a standard of health care which I enjoy in the United Kingdom…” there is only one place,’ Picardo says. ‘Indeed, there’s probably only one place in the whole of the European continent where you know you will be able to move after Brexit without a visa, and you’re sitting in it.’ Spoken, I’m sure you’ll agree, like a good socialist.
Which, as leader of the Gibraltar Socialist Labour Party, he undoubtedly is. Yet he’s undoubtedly more relaxed, as Peter Mandelson famously put it, about greed than Messrs Corbyn and McDonnell. Under his watch Gibraltar offers businesses a very attractive 10 per cent rate of corporation tax, there’s no inheritance tax or capital gains tax, and it currently has some 328 millionaire ‘Category 2’ tax residents, who pay income tax capped at £27,560.
The Rock – quite literally, apparently, because many of the servers used are based inside the limestone promontory – has also become a centre for online betting, with 70 per cent of all internet bets in the UK placed there. Indeed, alongside financial services, tourism and port services, online betting is one of the four pillars upon which the local economy is based – an economy which grew by 9 per cent last year, no less. Gibraltar’s government also ran a surplus of £78 million last year and unemployment is under 100: ‘It was 84 on the close of business on the day I gave my budget speech [1 July]. We know who they are; they have personal problems that they need help with,’ says Picardo.
With Brexit upon us, he thinks it will only strengthen Gibraltar’s relations with Britain. Certainly the response of Brussels and the fears of Spain’s attempts to muddy the negotiations by introducing the issue of Gibraltar has hardened anti-EU attitudes on the Rock. What would be the outcome if the referendum were rerun now? ‘I would not venture a guess,’ he volunteers. ‘I was able to say that I was as sure as dammit that it would be over 90 per cent last time, but I wouldn’t venture a guess now.’
He has no uncertainty about Theresa May, however, for whom he developed respect when dealing with her at the Home Office. ‘Theresa May has been charged with dealing with probably the hardest task facing any British prime minister since 1939,’ he declares. ‘I think that people judge her very harshly indeed. I would spare a thought for the work that woman has been asked to do and how she has stepped up to the plate to discharge it.’
And while he is involved in discussions in London and Brussels over future arrangements, he adds: ‘I am very pleased I am not negotiating for the United Kingdom, because the Gibraltar economy’s much more manageable. It’s much more reliant on the relationship with the United Kingdom itself, rather than with the rest of the single market, and I think that we can make a very positive future for Gibraltar; we can make a success of Brexit.’
A ten-minute drive from the air-conditioned cabinet room lies the southernmost tip of this 2.6-square-mile land mass, from which you can see across the strategically important Straits of Gibraltar when it’s clear. Today it’s parked-up tankers, cruising yachts and jet skiers leaving white trails in the perfect blue water. There’s a gun emplacement of Second World War vintage, a bus stop with elaborate one-way system, a mosque with capacity for 1,000 worshippers – the gift of the late King Fahd of Saudi Arabia – and a Union Jack fluttering in the breeze. It’s called Europa Point, and despite the weather and latitude it’s British to the core, not unlike the Rock behind it.
Photography by David Harrison
This feature first appeared in the September/October issue of Spear’s which is available at your nearest WHSmiths travel store or independent news agent. To subscribe, visit www.spearswms.com/subscribe