LIONEL Parody has been a Gibraltar taxi tour guide for over 30 years. The 59-year-old grandfather remembers the pain of General Franco’s border closures. But he never thought that fear would return, not until the EU’s shock decision to hand Spain a veto over Gibraltar’s future in the Brexit negotiations.
“We are in trouble,” he tells the Olive Press. “We have been faithful to the British since the times of Nelson. During the Falklands we converted the SS Uganda into a hospital ship here.
“Now we need Britain’s help. Gibraltar is not included in this EU clause and we are very concerned about what Spain might do.”
This was the fortnight when Gibraltar’s perennial Spanish dilemma was catapulted onto front pages and news broadcasts around the world. With Britain’s press corps descending on the Rock, Gibraltar’s daily struggle with Spain was suddenly the talk of every pub and living room in the UK.
The extraordinary sequence of events boiled over when the European Council dropped its 35-word Brexit bombshell on the Rock. Clause 22 of the EU’s draft guidelines ambushed British politicians and Gibraltarians alike. “After the United Kingdom leaves the Union, no agreement between the EU and the United Kingdom may apply to the territory of Gibraltar without the agreement between the Kingdom of Spain and the United Kingdom.”
Spain’s intensive EU lobbying campaign had clearly paid off. There it was in black and white. A veto for Madrid to exclude Gibraltar from any future trade deal the UK signs.
Immediately, fears for Britain’s entire Brexit project were crystallised into hard reality. While Britain’s negotiations would be conducted with the single bloc, on the issue of Gibraltar, it must negotiate bilaterally with Spain.
Gibraltar, its government said, had ‘shamefully been singled out’ by the European Council.
Picardo wasted no time turning his guns on EU Council President Donald Tusk. “Mr Tusk is behaving like a cuckolded husband who is taking it out on the children,” he fired back.
For many Gibraltarians on Main Street in the aftermath of Friday’s shock, the cry was of EU betrayal.
“We feel stabbed in the back by them,” said retiree Ana Hayden, 59. “The Spanish are being the bullies and we feel rejected by the EU. It feels like we have no rights. I would say to Britain please back us. We need your help.
“Britain came to our help when the border closed and we survived. Spain even removed oxygen from the hospitals.”
Her husband, Brian, 64, agreed. “I find it undemocratic, the idea that the EU are siding with Spain. We are British. My great grandfather came here with the British Army, Royal Artillery.
“I trust Britain to help us. If we can’t trust Britain, who can we trust?”
UK politicians immediately leapt to Gibraltar’s defence. Hilary Benn spoke out on BBC radio. Andrew Rosindell, a National Day regular, said ‘British people must and will stand together, we cannot be bullied by Spain’.
Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson decided the moment called for one of his customary puns. “As ever, the UK remains implacable & rock-like in our support for Gibraltar.”
No doubt Johnson’s sentiment is true. The UK government has been unstinting in its promises to back Gibraltar. But the question has to be asked as to how prominent Gibraltar was in the minds of either side of the UK Brexit campaign in the run-up to the referendum.
Certainly, it was seldom mentioned in the endless rounds of debate and newspaper columns before June 23. Given how close the final result was – 17,410,742 votes to Leave, 16,141,241 votes to Remain – there was surely political capital in the Remain camp appealing to Britain’s patriotic zeal and spelling out starkly just what was at stake for 38,000 fellow British people living in Spain’s shadow. Crucial votes could have been won over the issue.
The EU Clause 22 was a shock. But a situation of this type – with Spain trying all it can to assume control over Gibraltar, and the problems that would cause both Gibraltarians and the UK – should have been considered more carefully in the UK.
For Edward Macquisten, Chief Executive of the Gibraltar Chamber of Commerce, the EU’s move threw into question the morality of the entire single-bloc European project.
“It is more than betrayal,” he tells the Olive Press. “This does not bode well for the people of Europe. It is not as if we have adopted a position that is contrary to the ideals of the EU.
“We have followed the European ideal more so than any other European member. So what are the EU going to do to people that vote against them?”
Over in England, Lord Howard wasted no time in throwing petrol on roaring fires. Evoking the spirit of the Iron Lady, he drew his now infamous – or famous, whichever side of the fence you sit on – comparison with the Falkland Islands.
“Thirty-five years ago this week, another woman prime minister sent a taskforce halfway across the world to defend the freedom of another small group of British people against another Spanish-speaking country, and I’m absolutely certain that our current prime minister will show the same resolve in standing by the people of Gibraltar,” said Howard.
As reprehensible as the PP’s intentions on Gibraltar are, Mariano Rajoy is no General Galtieri (a dictator who played a part in the disappearance of thousands during the Argentine Junta’s brutal regime). Nevertheless, Howard’s gunboat diplomacy found a degree of favour with some concerned Gibraltarians on Main Street.
“We understand what he is trying to say,” said Ana Hayden. ”Some Spanish take it as a personal offence. But he is trying to defend us. We do welcome it. It’s about time Britain did something to stand up to them.”
Levy Attias, another Gibraltarian who lived through Franco’s border closures, admitted that ‘the situation will be tough’.“But as tough as Spain gets, Britain will be tougher. And they will bite,” he says.
Jack Straw, the bete noire of Gibraltar following his wretched 2002 joint sovereignty plan, suddenly reappeared on the scene, like Banquo’s ghost. The former Labour foreign secretary, shamefully touted his failed plan once more, sticking the boot into Gibraltar while he did so.
“For the Spanish, Gibraltar is an affront to their sense of national identity and their sense of sovereignty. It’s a bit like having a part of Dover being owned by Spain,” he said.
“It’s in the interests of Gibraltarians for there to be some kind of deal done with the Spanish in the new circumstances.”
Meanwhile, in Madrid, Lord Howard’s fiery rhetoric had not gone unnoticed. Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis advised the UK to ‘calm down’ (even though the drums of war were being beaten by a former minister with no real power).
Picardo was on an endless treadmill of interviews, appearing on BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, and slamming Spain’s ‘abominable’ behaviour on the US CNBC channel. The Sun threw its might behind the Rock, launching a highly popular campaign to back Gibraltar and giving Spanish right-wing paper ABC a taste of its own medicine with its – far more witty, although incorrectly spelled – Up Your Senors front page. A high-profile Gibraltar political source told the Olive Press the deluge of media interest in the Rock had been ‘overwhelming, but it is giving us important coverage’.
That it is. Among large swathes of UK citizens, there has, it’s fair to say, been a degree of ignorance over the Gibraltar question. Well, they know now. After the extraordinary events of the last week and a half, everyone in the UK is aware of how much is at stake for Gibraltar.
It is now up to Westminster to ensure that Spain not only fails in its plot to gain sovereignty over Gibraltar, but also that the Rock’s citizens are not cut out of any trade deal the UK strikes with the EU. To do so would relegate Gibraltarians as second-class British citizens at a time when Gibraltar needs to cleave closer to the UK.
Gibraltar didn’t choose Brexit. More than anywhere, it voted almost unanimously for the EU project on June 23. For Brussels to turn round now and spit in Gibraltar’s face is an affront to democracy. March 31 will go down in history as a dark day for the EU.