You are here
Home > Opinion > How Gibraltar could have representation at Westminister

How Gibraltar could have representation at Westminister

In the post-Brexit world any range of possibilities seem to be on the table. London correspondent, Ken Westmoreland, looks extensively at different options Gibraltar could explore after Brexit.

The idea of Gibraltar having its own MP at Westminster, interest in which has increased and declined over decades, has recently garnered support in the form of a petition in the wake of Brexit. However, it remains to be seen if Craig Mackinlay’s private member’s bill will fare any better than that of his namesake Andrew Mackinlay did in the early 2000s.

Of course, since the days of the Integration With Britain Party and the fatal blow to it by Roy Hattersley, Gibraltar has changed. Its economy is now self-sufficient, having taken full advantage of its legislative and fiscal autonomy to attract foreign companies to the Rock. This is something that opponents of integration with the UK fear would be eroded or curtailed.

When Gibraltar was finally given the right to vote in elections to the European Parliament, there were those who saw its future in a federal ‘Europe of the Regions’. In such a scenario it would have taken its place alongside Scotland and Catalonia. They argued that Gibraltar be a separate constituency electing its own MEP, rather than form part of an existing one in the UK, but it was deemed too small to do so.

Lyana Armstrong-Emery took 4,000 of 7,000 votes in the 2014 south-west European elections

As a voter in south-west England constituency it was touching to see Lyana Armstrong-Emery’s name on the ballot paper. But I believe, being one of the few outside Gibraltar to know who she was, it was a terrible choice to make the Rock part of that region. After all, south-west England mostly votes UKIP, when it could have been included in Greater London, even though it would remain subsumed into a larger entity.

Contemporaries

Gibraltar is not alone in this respect, as the autonomous Finnish province of Åland, with a population of 29,000, feels just as sidelined. This is especially true as Finland votes in the European Parliament as a single constituency, not on a regional basis. By way of comparison, the smallest constituency for the German-speaking community of Belgium represents 77,000 people.

On the other hand, Greenland, a constituent country within the Kingdom of Denmark, had its own MEP before it left the then European Community in 1985. Despite this, the electorate was only 29,000, not much bigger than Gibraltar’s is now. Ironically, voters turned out in higher numbers to elect their MEP in 1984, despite knowing that the seat would be abolished six months later.

At the time when Denmark joined the EC with the UK in 1973, Greenland did not yet have Home Rule. This meant that it was a case of ‘reverse Gibraltar’, with its wish not to join the EC being disregarded. It was much unlike that of the Faroe Islands, known to Gibraltar’s football fans, which was respected, prompting Greenland to campaign for a similar level of autonomy.

Greenland’s version of Gibraltar – could a reverse Greenland be the way forward?

It seems apt, then, that people in Gibraltar, along with Scotland and Northern Ireland, have talked about a ‘reverse Greenland’. But how would it work? Would Gibraltar take over the UK’s representation in Brussels and Strasbourg? Would Scotland and Northern Ireland be within the EU as ‘outermost regions’, and England and Wales outside it as ‘overseas countries’?

Repercussions

And leaving aside Spain’s objections, what precedent would it set for other countries in Europe? Could the French-speaking cantons of Switzerland join the EU while the German and Italian-speaking ones stay out? After all, Swiss cantons are still officially independent republics, and each citizen of the Confederation is also a citizen of a canton and of a municipality within it.

Mercifully, one of the few things that the Dutch and French-speaking communities of Belgium can agree on is that even if they don’t want to be part of the same country, they still want to be part of the EU. However, even as a region rather than a member state, Wallonia had the power to block the EU’s trade agreement with Canada, and could use it again to block a deal with the UK.

The martyrs’ square in the southern region of Belgium which is 55% French speaking

There is more chance of Scotland becoming independent and Northern Ireland joining the Republic than of either relying on Gibraltar to represent them in the EU. Given that it was the King of Scotland that became King of England, not the other way around, there more chance of the Queen moving to Holyrood Palace than to the Convent, despite the latter’s warmer weather!

In practice

While many argue that an MP for Gibraltar at Westminster would be at a loose end, there is, in fact, an international dimension involved. Members of national parliaments participate in the parliamentary assemblies of the Council of Europe (not to be confused with the European Union). They also participate in NATO, in which such an MP would come face to face with those from Spain.

It was, after all, the European Court of Human Rights, an institution of the Council of the Europe, and not the Court of Justice of the European Union, which ruled that the UK should give British citizens in Gibraltar the right to vote in elections to the European Parliament. So it would be fitting were Gibraltar to be represented in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg

That said, it was the Court of Justice of the European Union that upheld the right of all qualifying Commonwealth citizens resident in Gibraltar, to vote and stand in elections to the European Parliament. This was irrespective of their nationality and however few in number, a right they have always had in the UK. The court rejected Spain’s complaint that this was an infringement of European Community law.

Support

Of course, there has never been a bar to Gibraltar participating in meetings of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association as an overseas territory. In fact, older people will remember the support of Commonwealth countries, including Asian and African ones, during the 1967 referendum. But apart from Malta, Cyprus and the UK itself, the Commonwealth lacks a European dimension.

Then there is a chance that the UK would rejoin the European Free Trade Association and remain in the European Economic Area after Brexit. That would entail its MPs, like Norway’s, Iceland’s and Liechtenstein’s, would participate in the Joint Parliamentary Committee. This would be alongside MEPs from EU member states, in which Gibraltar should be also be represented.

Craig Mackinlay Conservative MP

In response, those opposed to Brexit will say that this would be just a talking shop and a poor substitute for representation in the European Parliament, even though this is already limited in Gibraltar’s case. Meanwhile, some supporters of Craig Mackinlay’s Bill, favouring a hard Brexit, would oppose it because it would leave the UK too closely tied to the EU.

Ambassador at large

One scenario that has come up if Brexit is delayed is that the UK will still be represented in the European Parliament. But instead of its members being directly elected as now, they would be elected by its own national parliament, in which Gibraltar is not represented. If that were to occur, Gibraltar’s own MPs, or at least the Chief Minister, could also have the right to vote.

Even in the absence of a separate MP for Gibraltar at Westminster, one of its own MPs could be designated by the UK Parliament as one of its members. They would participate in inter-parliamentary forums on the same basis, including the proposed UN Parliamentary Assembly, supported among others by Gibraltar’s (and South West England’s) former MEP Sir Graham Watson.

This ‘shadow MP’ could be one of a different kind, not so much a ‘Member of Parliament’ as a ‘Minister Plenipotentiary’. This ambassador at large for Gibraltar, could be democratically elected or at least familiar with the Rock. It would be better that than they were a wealthy foreigner. The ambassador at large of Antigua and Barbuda was a Chinese billionaire who later ended up being kidnapped and taken to China!

Global parallels

Similar population size and planes overflying beaches – Sint Maarten

A better model would be the island of Sint Maarten, a constituent country in the Caribbean of only 37km2 with just 41,000 people that is part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands . The nation has a Minister Plenipotentiary in The Hague attending meetings of the Council of Ministers of the Kingdom. In practice, though, this is not much different from the UK Overseas Territories’ Joint Ministerial Council.

In fact, so separate are the constituent countries from the Netherlands proper, as well as from the EU, that the Council of State in The Hague ruled that there were no grounds for giving their residents voting rights for the Second Chamber or lower house. This would be similar to the argument against giving Gibraltar and other overseas territories representation in the House of Commons.

Alternatively, perhaps those in Gibraltar who want representation at Westminster could hold their own elections for a ‘shadow MP’. It would be much like Washington DC in the US, dissatisfied with only being able to elect a non-voting delegate to Congress despite being the federal capital. This led to it holding unofficial elections for two ‘shadow senators’ and a ‘shadow representative’.

Committee representation

For Gibraltar, however, the problem has not been taxation without representation in the UK. Instead it’s been legislation without representation in the EU, at least before it gained the right to vote in elections to the European Parliament. Short of Gibraltar being able to remain in the EU independently of the UK with an MEP of its own, this right will disappear.

In the less unlikely event of the UK shelving Brexit, support for Gibraltar to have an MP at Westminster might once again wane. There could be a joint parliamentary committee, similar to the one between the EU and Iceland. This was set up before Iceland decided to withdraw its application to join the EU, but it still meets twice a year.

The North Front with a natural light show? – No, it’s Iceland

The continued existence of that committee assures that for those who favour Iceland joining the EU this has not been ruled out. A similar committee – combining members of the existing All-Party Parliamentary Group with a cross-party selection of Gibraltar’s own MPs – could also work toward more integration with the UK.

Cheer up, it may never happen, but in the past three years of constitutional meltdown in the UK, we don’t know what will any more!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Top