A British exit from the European Union would threaten the Rock’s sovereignty and ‘seriously impair’ the British Government’s ability to stand up for Gibraltar, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond warned yesterday.
Mr Hammond, who supports Britain remaining in the EU despite his Eurosceptic background, said a Brexit would also endanger Gibraltar’s future security and prosperity.
“Britain’s commitment to Gibraltar is absolute, it’s unshakable and it will endure whatever the decision in the referendum,” he told reporters during an official visit to Gibraltar.
“But I have to say this. Britain’s ability to protect Gibraltar’s interests will be seriously impaired if we are no longer members of the European Union, if we are no longer sitting around the table in Brussels when the decisions are made.”
“We need to recognise that, with the best will in the world, Britain will not able to solve all the challenges that Gibraltar could face if there was an exit on June 23.”
Mr Hammond, who was speaking alongside Chief Minister Fabian Picardo in No 6 Convent Place, said the Rock’s economy was inextricably linked to the EU single market.
Both he and Mr Picardo said the UK and Gibraltar were better off inside the EU and that their efforts were focused to that end ahead of the June 23 referendum.
But the Foreign Secretary also left no doubt as to the risks ahead for this community.
“I genuinely believe that the threat of leaving the European Union is as big a threat to Gibraltar’s future security and Gibraltar’s future sovereignty as the more traditional threats that we routinely talk about,” he said.
“Gibraltar’s future is clearly in the European Union’s single market.”
Mr Picardo echoed that view and said Spain had already floated the prospect of reviving the failed joint sovereignty proposal if Gibraltar wanted access to EU markets in the event of a Brexit.
“Something upon which those who advocate Brexit should reflect is that they don’t just say in Spain that our rights in Europe would come to an end … but also that if we want to continue to have access to European Union rights, we would have to consider the concept of joint sovereignty, which would be back on the table,” he said.
“So ironically somebody who believes they are being patriotic and supporting Gibraltar by voting to leave the European Union, will be bringing about actually Gibraltar having to face, once again, the prospect of joint sovereignty with Spain, something which most of the friends of Gibraltar in the Brexit side of the argument fought tooth and nail against at the time it was last tabled by a Labour government…”
Mr Hammond flew into Gibraltar aboard an RAF flight late on Tuesday evening – routed, both inbound and outbound, via Portugal because of Spanish restrictions on military flights – and started his visit on board the Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel RFA Mounts Bay.
From there he headed to Gun Wharf where he met crews from the Royal Navy’s Gibraltar Squadron, the Gibraltar Defence Police, the Royal Gibraltar Police and HM Customs (Gibraltar).
That was followed by a meet- ing with the Chief Minister and deputy Chief Minister Dr Joseph Garcia at No 6 Convent Place, where they discussed the economy, defence and security issues and, of course, the EU referendum.
This was Mr Hammond’s first visit to Gibraltar in his capacity as Foreign Secretary.
The last time a serving British Foreign Secretary visited Gibraltar was in 2009, when Labour’s David Miliband met with his Spanish counterpart, Miguel Angel Moratinos, and former Chief Minister Sir Peter Caruana as part of trilateral pro- cess.
The British and Gibraltar gov- ernments yesterday issued a lengthy statement in which the UK reiterated its double-lock commitment to never discuss or change Gibraltar’s British sover- eignty against the wishes of its people.
The two governments also expressed their desire to return to the Trilateral Forum for Dialogue with Spain as soon as possible.
But it was the looming EU referendum that dominated most of the discussion.
Mr Hammond said he was devoted “24/7” to making the argu- ments for Britain to remain in the bloc.
“I’m confident that by mak- ing those arguments clearly and dispassionately, appealing to people’s sense of reason, their judgement, rather than just emotions, we will get the right result on June 23rd,” he said.
Pressed on how the UK would support Gibraltar in the even of a Brexit – perhaps even fi- nancially, a reporter suggested – Mr Hammond said his energies were focused on achieving a vote to remain in the EU.
“Our support and commitment to Gibraltar are is absolute, but what we’re not going to do is get into contingency planning ahead of a vote which we expect to win,” he said.
“We don’t think it would be useful or helpful at this stage to start contingency planning for a process that, even if it were trig- gered, would take two years to come to fruition.”
“There’ll be plenty of time to talk about that should the eventuality arise.”
Mr Picardo also responded on this point and said Gibraltar had no intention to seek financial assistance from the UK, adding that this community wanted to make its own way in the world.
“If we were to find ourselves in the situation that we have to go to the United Kingdom because of our economic sustainability not being possible in those circumstances, then those who might have listened top the argument that they should leave the EU have a lot to answer for,” he said.
“But Gibraltar won’t be looking for support and sustain unless it’s absolutely necessary. We don’t want handouts.”
The Chief Minister was also asked whether he had contemplated the possibility of trying to find a way for Gibraltar to remain inside the EU even in the event of a Brexit.
Mr Picardo echoed the Foreign Secretary and said he was focused on securing a vote to remain in the EU, not on planning for what might happen outside it.
But he admitted that his mind “has wandered” and given some thought to the issue.
“There are so many imponderables…about what might be possible, it’s impossible at this moment to reach any conclusion,” he said.
“And therein lies the risk.
Nobody knows what happens on June 24th.”
Mr Hammond also reflected along similar lines on what might happen after June 23 in the event of a Brexit.
“We’re taking a huge leap into the dark if we decide to leave the European Union, with abso- lutely no guarantee that at the end of what would be a long and destabilising process, we’d end up with something that was any better than what we had before, and plenty of evidence suggest- ing that what we’d end up with might be considerably worse,” he said.
“We might end up having to pay a very high price to gain a much more limited access to this hugely important market of 500 million people that sustains so many jobs and so much prosperity.”
After their meeting in No 6 Convent place, the two men strolled down Main Street, greeting people as they headed to the headquarters of the Gibraltar Stronger In Europe campaign.
There they were met by Gemma Vasquez, who is leading the cam- paign, and a group of students from Bayside and Westside who quizzed the Foreign Secretary with some probing questions on the EU referendum and the implications for Gibraltar.