IN ACTION: Richard Buttigieg

I AM gathering my thoughts (above the noise) in Gibraltar’s imperious Grand Battery as I wait for Richard Buttigieg.

It is my first visit to Gibraltar and it’s rammed with locals pronouncing their patriotism to the rooftops in a riot of red and white outfits.

The juxtaposition between red and white flags and the red-going-on-white heat of an unusually hot September day  – the mercury indicates over 30 C – is a little disorienting. More so as I had to ask for directions from a policeman with a gentle Scouse drawl, clad in a uniform I would normally associate with the London Met.

However the Chairman of the Self Determination Group, appearing through an opening in the city’s fortress walls, makes me feel instantly at home with his warm welcome and evident passion for his native territory.

“I feel very optimistic about our future,” he tells me. “One has to realise that in ’67, when we voted to remain British in the referendum we are commemorating today, the people knew it was going to come at a hefty price and we paid it.

“The frontier was closed and everyone predicted doom and gloom. General Franco at the time said Gibraltar was a fruit waiting to fall from the tree.

“We are still waiting,” he says. “We have overcome much harder obstacles than Brexit and I am confident that, with the entrepreneurial spirit in Gibraltar and the desire and passion that the next generation have, we will overcome the Brexit threat.”

It is difficult to spend long in Gibraltar without the topic of Brexit arising. After all, the Rock recorded the biggest ‘Remain’ vote of any, weighing in at a staggering 96%.

But Richard, a corporate lawyer by day and a political advocate by night, believes he has a unique insight into the future of the British Territory.

“It is very clear to us, post-Brexit, that our future is dependent on retaining single market access with the UK,” he argues.

“Our clients in industry are selling insurance, financial services, gaming and gambling and all these industries rely on financial passporting.

“As long as we retain the ability to passport their services with the United Kingdom, an exit from the EU should not be dramatic for them,” he continues.

“We have had very robust assurances from senior cabinet ministers in the UK, who have made public and private statements that passporting rights will remain there.”

One aspect of uncertainty for Gibraltarians remains its on-going relations with its neighbour, Spain. Aggressive rhetoric from the Spanish authorities has ramped up in recent years.

The then Spanish Foreign Minister, José Manuel García-Margallo, infamously stated in June last year that Spain would demand control of Gibraltar the ‘very next day’ after the UK left the EU.

However, Richard remains positive regarding relations with its oft adversary.

“It is part and parcel of the psyche of Gibraltarians, as they grow up, that relations with Spain are something we ought to be careful about and careful with,” he says.

“On an individual level we don’t feel threatened but, certainly, we have an issue on a political level because the Spaniards, particularly García-Margallo, took only minutes to say Brexit was the best opportunity they’d had in history regarding Gibraltar.

Alfonso Dastis

“Moreover, since Dastis took over as Foreign Secretary of Spain, we have seen the rhetoric calm down a lot.

“That ought to be welcome because I don’t think it does anyone on either side of the border any good to have this rhetoric, when it is essentially an issue about people,” he concluded.

Nonetheless, Gibraltar’s future is intrinsically tied to Spain, evidenced by the estimated 12,000 workers – over 50% of them Spanish – who cross over the border daily to work.

“Our main worry is whether there will be a freezing of people-movement, whether the border with our neighbour will remain open,” Richard explains. “That is really what is crucial for us.”  

“I think what has been said at a political level is that Gibraltar is quite happy to extend European rights to existing workers and people … the Spanish workers and immigrants who come into Gibraltar.

“However, if the EU does not extend this right to the UK, it makes it difficult.”

However, while the most talked-about divorce in years is still a matter for speculation, Richard Buttigiege and the SDGG are in no doubt that Gibraltarians are rock solid on one thing: remaining red, white and British.