IF Brexit threatens to leave the British Territory of Gibraltar between a rock and a hard place, its fiesty Chief Minister has other plans.
In an exclusive interview with The Gibraltar Olive Press, Fabian Picardo has called for a second referendum on the final terms of any Brexit agreement and vowed to veto any aspects not beneficial to Gibraltar.
His demands come as the future of the sun-kissed British territory is set to be resolved this month, following negotiations between Spain and the UK.
Gibraltar recorded the highest ‘Remain’ vote of any region in the entire United Kingdom, with 96% expressing a desire to stay in the EU.
Coming from humble beginnings on one of Gibraltar’s most deprived estates in Upper Town and ending up at Oriel College, Oxford before qualifying as a barrister, Picardo is determined that Brexit will not restrict the opportunities he had as a young Gibraltarian.
“I was afforded every opportunity by the GSLP government here, growing up,” he says proudly.
“I wanted to enter politics to ensure that remained the case and that Gibraltar continued to flourish.”
“It’s about setting Gibraltar up for the next 50 years of Gibraltarian success and prosperity – giving our children the benefits and tools we had.”
It was those opportunities that inspired him to join the Gibraltar Socialist Labour Party as an adult, where his passion for the Gibraltarian people and charismatic personality saw him rise rapidly through the ranks to become its leader.
Picardo believes now is the time to safeguard the future of the Rock’s next generation, in particular from any negative Brexit fallout.
While he acknowledges the fact that he is unable to influence all British policy in Gibraltar, such as defence, he confirmed that he can veto conditions of any future agreement, such as in business or social care provision, if they negatively impact Gibraltar.
This power has been bestowed on his government under Section 47(3) of the Gibraltarian Constitution, which states that issues solely related to the Rock are only under the responsibility of Gibraltarian politicians, even in the context of the European Union.
The Gibraltarian Constitution was drawn up by politicians in London, so rebuking Picardo’s arguments would appear difficult, even in a court of law.
“It is clear that we do have a Brexit veto for Gibraltar, in Gibraltar,” confirms the top barrister.
“We will be able to determine whether aspects of what is agreed will be implemented in Gibraltar or not.
“The application to Gibraltar will be determined by the Gibraltarian cabinet and parliament.”
Furthermore, Picardo divulged that he believes it is ‘absolutely right, proper and fair’ that British citizens should get a second referendum on Brexit once the final terms of any deal are agreed with Brussels.
He doesn’t feel it was fair to hold the Brexit vote when citizens did not, and still do not, know what terms they were potentially voting for.
“It’s complex but I think there is democratic legitimacy for a second referendum as new arrangements will have been agreed,” he reasons.
His call for a further referendum comes the same week as the former leader of UKIP, Nigel Farage, shockingly backed a second vote, to stop ‘whining and moaning’ over Brexit.
Aside from his delight in seeing Farage backtrack, pro-Europe Picardo enjoyed recalling his earliest ‘political’ memory – his father telling him how he was a dispatch rider for General Eisenhower’s Operation Torch HQ in Gibraltar in 1942-3.
Picardo, like many Gibraltarians, has Spanish lineage and believes Brexit can also provide a momentous opportunity for improving relations with Gibraltar’s Spanish neighbour.
“I haven’t lost my European zeal,” Picardo says enthusiastically.
“I still believe in Europe and Gibraltar is a place where you will understand the need for Europe more than anywhere else in Europe.
“You look at our impact on Andalucia, you have 13,000 people living in Spain coming to work in Gibraltar every day.
“We are the second biggest employers in the whole of Andalucia, after the Junta, and contribute an incredible 25% of the region’s GDP.
“This has taken place while we are at loggerheads and not talking.
“If we spent the energy we spend arguing over the issue of Gibraltarian sovereignty on co-operating and creating a business plan for the region, we would create 100,000 jobs instead of 13,000.
“Perhaps if Brexit requires us to be in ‘damage limitation’ mode, it enables us to enter into more ambitious shared prosperity endeavours, just as long as we can put aside old arguments and look at the opportunities having a non-EU territory on the shores of the EU can create for Spain.”
Picardo is also now increasingly optimistic that Brexit will provide new markets for Gibraltar’s financial services, online gaming and insurance industries.
Research carried out after the referendum result was declared allayed concerns about the Rock’s future.
Revealingly, it was discovered that only 10% of Gibraltar’s financial services business went to markets outside the UK.
This meant that an overwhelming 90% of business was directed at Britain.
“I see it as an opportunity to build bridges with other countries outside of the EU,” he contests.
“Just look at the countries the UK is looking to do business with – China, New Zealand, Australia, India, the USA and Canada.
“Those countries alone represent two billion people and the others in Europe have not really been our customers so far.
“I sincerely back Liam Fox’s initiatives in kicking down the doors of international trade barriers and establishing new trade relationships for the UK because we will always be part of those new trade arrangements.
“You layer on the DLT, blockchain and cryptocurrency industries we have – those technologies are making frontiers invisible and irrelevant, wherever you are in the world.
“Finally, we are establishing a seriously strong relationship with China and other countries on their One Belt One Road initiative.
“That alone is a huge recipe for growth.”
The Rock has a healthcare system currently envied by doctors and patients alike across the world.
The Gibraltar Healthcare Authority recently announced with pride that they have not had to cancel a single operation due to bed shortages since February 2017. Contrast this with Britain’s beleaguered NHS, where 50,000 non-essential operations were cancelled in January alone.
Education in Gibraltar also is entirely subsidised by the government, with many youngsters studying in the UK free of charge. Again, contrast this with the UK where students have racked up crippling debts or missing out on university completely after the maximum cost of one year’s tuition was raised to £9,250.
“We will never fall into the New Labour trap because we have socialist in our name,” Picardo says emphatically.
“The things we do, and the motivation behind our politics, is to make the lives of everyone in our community better.
“It was the philosophy that gave rise to the birth of the GSLP, it is what drives me.
“If you look at where we are investing, and where the debate is in Gibraltar, it is literally as if you had taken the political debate in the United Kingdom and turned it on its head.
“I get told I am spending too much on healthcare and too much on education – it is the opposite here.
“You ask the people in the ambulances sitting outside hospitals for four or five hours, or in the corridors of A&E departments, whether they think the United Kingdom government should invest more in healthcare.”
During Picardo’s tenure as Chief Minister, Gibraltar’s GDP per capita has sharply risen – to £56,612 according to its official budget in 2017 – ranking Gibraltar as the fourth wealthiest territory on the globe.
Despite the boom in living standards in Gibraltar over the past decade, one could be forgiven for feeling slightly sorry for Fabian Picardo, given his impending Brexit workload.
However, this former Upper Town boy believes there is even more to be excited about as a young Gibraltarian than in his own childhood.
Indeed, the welfare of the next generation will continue to be foremost in his mind, in and out of the political sphere. His wife Justine has just given birth to their third child, Valentina.
Meanwhile, the man responsible for the future of all Gibraltarians, young and old, is utterly confident in the territory’s continued success. “Gibraltar will not be paralysed by Brexit,” he says fiercly. “Far from it!”