AS the British Prime Minister David Cameron announced the referendum was to take place on June 23 and the Government of Gibraltar very quickly confirmed it supported both the agreement he had managed to negotiate with the other 27 Heads of State and his recommendation to vote to remain, it seemed appropriate to ask the Chief Minister the Hon Fabian Picardo QC MP about his views on the vote and about what brought him into politics.
I was very impressed that during the meeting and without having pre-warned him of any of the questions to be asked, he was able to respond immediately and in a very clear and direct manner without the usual obfuscation that we expect from politicians nowadays.
Firstly, after congratulating him on his recent 44th birthday I asked why he had decided to give up his very successful and no doubt lucrative career as a lawyer who had qualified at Oriel College, Oxford to become a politician.
There was no hesitation in the response that he was driven by a desire to influence the future and well-being of Gibraltar and its people. He sees all politicians as social architects who have the opportunity to shape the rules of the community and having seen some of what he considered successes and failures in the past, he wanted to use the benefits of his education to help advance the lot of the people of Gibraltar.
It was obvious that this very erudite and still young man has a passion for what he does and reportedly starts work at around 7am and doesn’t leave his office until late in the evening, unless of course he is meeting people in Gibraltar, Spain and the UK.
It had intrigued me as to why he had chosen to ally himself with the Labour party rather than any other party in Gibraltar and his response was very open and interesting. Even as a child, he remembered his parents often literally sat down to count their money to make sure they had enough for the week and having benefitted from a government scholarship which allowed him to go to university in the UK and achieve his degree, he wanted to ensure these opportunities existed for all.
It is an open secret that he is not enamoured with the past politics of the previous Chief Minister, Sir Peter Caruana who led the Social Democrats, so for Mr Picardo, there was no question that he would join the Labour Party and considering the landslide result for Labour/ Liberal coalition in the 2015 election, his activities and policies clearly resound positively with the electorate.
I then asked whether the introduction of the University of Gibraltar would bring an end to the granting of overseas scholarships for young Gibraltarians which had served him and so many of his contemporaries so well and the response was, as I had now come to expect, both concise and to the point.
The University of Gibraltar is not Government owned and whilst it is an establishment that all of Gibraltar should be proud of, it is as important as a place of learning for students from other countries particularly in learning business English or Spanish as it is for local students, some of whom are looking for specific short term courses or do not wish to travel abroad.
As far as his Government is concerned, they want to see the number of overseas grants increase, as to his mind, education is not just about book learning but is also about life experience and he recognises there is a world outside of the three square miles of Gibraltar so the more that students experience, the better they can help to shape the future of the Rock on their return.
Where the Brexit is concerned, all political parties in Gibraltar are united in wanting to see Britain remain in the Union. There is of course, a significant element of self-interest in this declaration, but they do believe both Britain and Gibraltar will best be served by being part of what is effectively one of the world ‘super powers.’
Gibraltarians will be able to vote in the referendum and he will urge them to vote in favour of remaining with the EU because despite what is seen as the posturing of parties such as UKIP (two MEPs represent Gibraltar in the European Parliament alongside conservative and a green party member) none of them have ever explained what the future of Gibraltar would be if Britain left the EU.
One other matter I wanted to raise, was the fact that Spain made so much of the smuggling of tobacco across the border and wondered whether he was angered by this when one considers the draconian laws brought in by his government to limit the number of cigarettes that an individual could purchase or own, the fact that Spanish satellite Andorra is now the biggest supplier of smuggled cigarettes and organised crime is manufacturing fake cigarettes within Spain.
Mr Picardo said he wasn’t angry and he didn’t want Spanish national politicians to have the satisfaction of thinking he was. He is however disappointed they should, for their own political purposes, brief the Spanish press in such a way that the Spanish people receive an incorrect view of what is happening.
If they are not told the truth, then they are being misled and the fact the Royal Gibraltar Police seized 35,000 packs of illegally held cigarettes in Gibraltar a week ago, will almost certainly go unreported in Spain.
It was a very rewarding experience to meet Mr Picardo and to hear from him his views and commitment to the future of Britain’s only Overseas Territory in Europe.