Brexit And Biodiversity

Is there no limit to Brexit’s reach?

It turns out that the repercussions of leaving the European Union won’t be felt just by people: it’s bad news also for birds. And lizards. And frogs. At least, for those in the remaining Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies it is.

That was the view taken by delegates at a conference in Alderney last month to discuss the future of the environment in these remnants of Empire, ranging from Bermuda and the Pitcairn Islands to the Falklands and Gibraltar.

The UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum coordinated the event, which saw the participation of the environment ministers of most of the territories including ours, Dr. John Cortes. He co-chaired the meeting alongside Alderney’s Chief Executive, Victor Brownlees. The ministers expressed concern about the financial impact Brexit is already having.

John Cortes gives his presentation at the conference

A paper published last year noted that the Overseas Territories’ importance for biodiversity dwarfs that of mainland UK. 94% of the UK’s endemic species are actually found in the territories. Yet their governments claim that money London would in the past have allocated for environmental protection is being diverted away in favour of traditional job creation. Spending on the climate has been slashed by almost a half, and this could have serious consequences for threatened and endangered species in the UK’s outposts.

The Environment Ministers also complain “it can be hard to pin down the Departments and individuals in UK Government who should be consulted”. “Rapid ministerial changes further aggravate the situation”, they add. They say Brexit is not an excuse to put everything on hold and assert that there’s no excuse for stopping environmental protection.

If this weren’t bad enough, Brexit will also result in a loss of EU funding. Many territories have received substantial sums from Europe to help not just with wildlife conservation but infrastructural projects too. This will cease once the UK has left the club. An Alderney post-conference press release plaintively states that EU funding for UK Overseas Territories conservation must be replaced.

Luckily for us Gibraltar isn’t among the places most likely to see its fauna and flora jeopardised by any environmental retrenchment.

Islands like St. Helena and Bermuda have hundreds of species that are found nowhere else and others, the Caymans and Montserrat for instance, are home to endangered species. Gibraltar on the other hand only has two known endemic species, the Gibraltar Campion and a type of snail, and neither is in imminent danger.

Gibraltar Campion (Silene tomentosa)

That doesn’t mean we can afford to be complacent. Gibraltar has benefitted enormously from European structural funds down the years: Commonwealth Park, which was part-funded by the EU, is one high-profile example. This source will dry up after Brexit.

And whereas other Overseas Territories know that UK cuts would harm the environment in their parts of the world, we don’t know yet whether and how we on the Rock might be affected.

Let’s hope the Prime Minister keeps her promise to steadfastly support Gibraltar, its people and its economy. And that she’ll be steadfast too in upholding the sovereignty of British Gibraltar Territorial Waters should Spain seek to justify future incursions on the basis that it’s enforcing EU law.

Up To Speed?

As a victim of a traffic accident some years ago I’m wholly in favour of combatting speeding on our roads.

I therefore welcomed the news that speed cameras installed in some of our ‘hot spots’ are now operational and will be used to identify offending vehicles. Launching the initiative, transport minister Paul Balban revealed that 1,700 drivers were logged breaking speed limits in the space of just one weekend. Recklessness of this sort must be stopped, and if the cameras serve as a deterrent they’re a very worthwhile investment.

There are, however, some issues that I think need clarifying.

The Official Notice announcing the scheme includes the following paragraph:

“All speeding offences captured by (the cameras) will be transmitted on-line real time mode to inform the offices of Gibraltar Car Parks Limited (GCPL). A Notice of Intended Prosecution (NIP) will then be issued and sent by registered mail to the registered owner of the vehicle. This will notify the owner of the intention to commence legal proceedings for the alleged offence of speeding. The owner must then reply to GCPL within 28 days providing the full name and address of the driver of the vehicle at the date and time of the offence”.

 The only stipulated time limit is the 28 days for the vehicle owner. There’s no similar restriction on the issuing of a Notice of Intended Prosecution.

If many weeks or months elapse before the owner is notified of the alleged offence is it not unreasonable to expect him to remember who was driving the vehicle on a particular day, at a particular time? Better, surely, to specify time frames for both stages of the process.

And how will the authorities prove that an offence was, in fact, committed? What protection does the citizen have from a spurious, or mistaken accusation?

Another misgiving of mine is the one-size-fits-all fine, or “Conditional Offer” as it’s euphemistically termed. Regardless of whether offenders have broken the speed limit by one or one hundred kilometres per hour they can avoid prosecution by paying a £100 fixed penalty. To my mind it’s unfair that a driver who may inadvertently cause his vehicle to exceed the limit by a few kph is penalised just as severely as one who speeds dangerously and deliberately.

Still on the subject of the fixed penalty notice, these will be sent to the driver “as declared by the owner of the offending vehicle”. Maybe there are good reasons against it, but wouldn’t it be more straightforward to make the owner liable in the first instance and not the driver, just as a dog owner is responsible for his pet’s fouling?

Then there’s the question of motorcycles and mopeds, most of which have the number plate at the rear. Will the speed cameras be effective in identifying them, or will their riders be immune from this particular law enforcement measure?

Well, it seems that half of them will be!

The government’s press office told me that “at this point” the system identifies all four-wheeled, but only 50% of two-wheeled vehicles. It didn’t explain which, or by when 100% will be identified, and denied this meant the system discriminates against drivers.

Spare a thought too for postal workers and court staff, who are likely to see their workload increase as a result of this new policy.

My intention in this piece isn’t to shoot down the speed cameras scheme. Like I said at the outset I approve of measures that result in slowing down traffic, thereby making our streets safer. I would simply urge that common sense is deployed in conjunction with the cameras themselves.

Brexit, Canadian-style?

An Economist reader had a novel, if improbable, solution to the UK’s Brexit woes. Britain should simply become the 11th province of Canada. This, a Mr Ted Stroll argues, would allow Britain to have its trade cake and eat it too.

Canada and the EU have a trade agreement and the UK would accede to it as a Canadian province. It would also join the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and enjoy liberal trade terms with the United States.

Canada’s provinces have wide powers and by treaty the UK’s could be even broader, he suggests. The Queen would remain head of state, Britain could keep the pound and English, together with French, would be the official language.

Mr Stroll points out that such a move would not be unprecedented. Newfoundland left the UK and joined Canada in 1949. Time to think outside the box, he concludes.

Maybe so. But somehow I don’t think the idea will cut much ice with Theresa May, or whoever is Prime Minister after 8th June. Let’s hope not anyway: If the UK ceased to be a sovereign state what would happen to Gibraltar’s sovereignty?!

Rather more serious food for thought comes from the President of the European Investment Bank (EIB), the world’s largest international public lending institution.

Brian Unwin notes that if Britain leaves the EU it will cease to be a member and shareholder and will no longer be eligible for EIB finance unless there’s a treaty change, which he considers unlikely, or the bank’s governors agree unanimously to continue financing projects in Britain. This would depend on the outcome of the Brexit talks.

There is therefore, according to Mr Unwin, a serious risk that Britain will be denied a major source of long-term, low-cost investment financing. Over the past eight years the EIB has committed €40 billion to projects in the UK.

The EIB President says that, at a time when Britain will desperately need to retain the confidence of external investors to promote economic growth and employment and to help finance its current-account deficit, the loss of EIB finance could be another unintended but damaging consequence of the British government’s hard Brexit policy.

It would also be bad news for the Rock if we’re looking to a cash-strapped UK for financial assistance post-Brexit.

Ok before we all get too depressed, let me sign off with a few of my favourite Brexit jokes as trawled from the Internet:

  • I guess the EU now has 1GB of free space.
  • What could follow Brexit? Grexit. Departugal. Italeave. Czechout. Oustria. Only Remainia will stay.
  • It’s important to just accept the result and move on. Possibly to another country.
  • A Scotsman, an Englishman and a Gibraltarian walked into a bar. The Englishman wanted to go, so they all had to leave.
  • After the announcement of the referendum result: “Best of three?”

See EU next week.

Art and the Apostrophe

STREET ART

When I first read about the mural that was going to be painted on the façade of Inces Hall I honestly thought it was an April Fool joke that had leaked. The story was published in the Gibraltar Chronicle on 30th March and the street artist responsible, whom I confess I’d never heard of, was Ben Eine.

Nothing ‘benign’ about this, I thought: it must be a prank. I soon realised it wasn’t.

Call me a stick in the mud, but painting one side of Gibraltar’s most august playhouse shocking blue and covering it with large, garish letters that spell out a tired theatrical cliché is not something I appreciate. And I didn’t like it any better after seeing it in situ, which the government said was the best way of understanding this “popular form of public art”.

THE MISSING APOSTROPHE

Of course art by its very nature is subjective. But I don’t see why a painting that incorporates text should be wilfully ungrammatical. The two-word message emblazoned across the side of the theatre is evidently missing an apostrophe. Arguably, it’s also missing an exclamation mark at the end.

But when this is pointed out to the artist, he blithely replies that he doesn’t do punctuation marks. Why ever not? In an age of falling literacy standards why contribute to the decline?

For my part, I would have found the mural just a little more palatable if at least its inscription were in good English.

I’ve highlighted the Inces Hall project because it’s the most prominent of our apostrophe catastrophes. It certainly isn’t the only one, however. They’re rife on temporary road signs and menus in particular.

Why, for instance, does this blackboard outside a much-frequented Main Street establishment get all the plurals correct (we’ll let ‘pastas’ pass) except the one for a traditional Indian dish? There’s also a second error involving a missing apostrophe, but where exactly should it go? Answers on a postcard, please!

Proper names provide another pitfall.

Bishop Caruana Road reminds us of the late and much-loved Roman Catholic Bishop of Gibraltar, Charles Caruana. The road is named after him but he didn’t own it.

 

 

Bishop Rapallo’s Ramp, on the other hand, implies to me at least that the lane behind the Cathedral of St Mary the Crowned belonged to the first Gibraltarian Bishop, Edward Rapallo. Naturally, it didn’t.

There are numerous similar examples:

Albert Risso House but Gustavo Bacarisa’s House.

Armstrong Steps but Boschetti’s Steps.

Lady Williams Close but Eliott’s Close.

And, coming full circle, what of Inces Hall itself? It’s spelt like that on the actual building, and is commonly written as “Ince’s”. But unless the theatre was the property of the famous artificer who masterminded the construction of the Great Siege Tunnels, or a namesake, shouldn’t it actually be Ince Hall? We do, after all, have an Ince House! (In Moorish Castle Estate).

THE BRISTOL APOSTROPHISER

By coincidence I learned about the Ben Eine mural at around the same time that I became aware of the existence of the Apostrophiser, a self-styled grammar vigilante from the south west of England, who for the past 13 years has been patrolling the streets of Bristol at night, furtively correcting signage mistakes.

An engineer by profession, he has designed his own “apostrophiser pole” which he uses to affix a sticker over an incorrect apostrophe or insert one where required.

He was the subject of a BBC radio report.

Hear it here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08kys4c

And he even merited an editorial in The Times, which praised him for performing a public service in aid of free expression.

“Accurate punctuation”, it concluded, “begets clarity and without clarity there is only confusion.”

I second that!

 

Why Independent candidates don’t get elected

The sad passing recently of Dr. Cecil Isola brought to mind just how difficult it is for anyone who’s not a member of a political party in Gibraltar to obtain a seat in parliament. Dr. Isola stood for election three times as an Independent and in 1980 was just 804 votes short of making it into opposition. But even then there were five other candidates who stood as part of a party line up who got more votes than him and who also failed to get elected.

There are numerous other examples down the years, the most celebrated of which is Dr. Reggie Valarino a quarter of a century ago. Having previously served as both a minister and opposition member with the AACR he stood on his own in 1992 and missed out by an agonising 98 votes. Dr. Valarino actually attracted more than twice the support of future deputy chief ministers Joseph Garcia and Keith Azopardi who that year were on the same ticket with the Gibraltar National Party, forerunner of today’s Liberal Party. But, for all that, Dr. Valarino didn’t make it and no other Independent has come as close since.

The main obstacle is our electoral system.

As anyone who’s voted knows, you can mark up to ten crosses on the ballot paper alongside the names of the candidates you wish to vote for, but may only give each candidate one vote. This means that unless a significant number of people vote for an Independent, and no one else, he or she stands little chance of getting elected. And that’s unlikely to happen because if you have ten votes at your disposal you’re probably going to want to use most or all of them.

Now it may be naïve of me, and there may be good arguments against it, but wouldn’t it be fairer to let people distribute their ten crosses as they see fit? Use up all your votes for a single candidate if that’s what you want to do, or divide them five-and-five, or four, three and three. In my view this would give Independents a better chance of getting elected, and also encourage a parliament of the “best brains”.

Who knows, it could even help change the entrenched “block vote” mentality and partisan nature of our politics. And that, if you’ve witnessed some of the unedifying exchanges between government and opposition, in parliament and outside it, would only be a good thing.

ELECTORAL REFORM?

 Realistically, however, it doesn’t seem that electoral reform of any kind will happen anytime soon.

Although the Commission on Democratic and Political Reform that submitted its report more than four years ago made 39 recommendations it concluded, with the exception of one of its members, that the present electoral system has “served Gibraltar well…and should be retained.”

Meanwhile, the parliamentary select committee that is ostensibly considering the Commission’s recommendations has not yet reported. The intention is for it to meet before the summer.

But with minds nowadays understandably focused on Brexit, changes to our voting system are very much on the back burner.

¿Como No?

Theresa May triggers Article 50 to begin the process of the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union and the first controversy is over Gibraltar!

Maybe the Prime Minister was asking for trouble when she failed to explicitly mention Gibraltar in her letter to the president of the European Council Donald Tusk, formally notifying him of the UK’s intention to leave the EU.

After all, a fluid Gibraltar-La Linea border post-Brexit is a fundamental concern for the Rock. As indeed it is for the Campo, especially the ten thousand Spanish workers that cross it daily to earn their living here.

But there was no reference to this issue in Mrs May’s letter which, in contrast, did emphasise her government’s wish to avoid a return to a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Chief Minister Fabian Picardo understandably sought to play down the omission, pointing out that although the word “Gibraltar” doesn’t appear, the Rock is included in the Article 50 White Paper referenced in the Prime Minister’s letter. It has however been reported that Mr Picardo asked Theresa May to include Gibraltar in her Article 50 letter but she did not.

Some commentators have speculated that the failure to mention the Rock was interpreted in Brussels as a sign that the UK’s resolve to stand up for Gibraltar is not as strong as it might be. Whether this was a factor or not, the European Council’s draft guidelines in response to Mrs May’s letter state:

“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”.

 Naturally this has set off alarm bells in Gibraltar. But, despite the undoubted difficulties that lie ahead, I’m not overly concerned.

I was comforted by the immediate messages of support from, among others, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, Tory grandees Lord Howard and Lord Tebbit and Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer. There are also many UK parliamentarians ready to defend Gibraltar as they have done so often in the past.

Reassuringly, Downing Street issued a press statement at the end of a turbulent weekend disclosing that the Prime Minister called Fabian Picardo and confirmed that the UK remains steadfastly committed to its support for Gibraltar, its people and – significantly – its economy. She also said that the British government remains absolutely dedicated to working with Gibraltar for the best possible outcome on Brexit, and will continue to involve us fully in the process.

These are significant pledges that, ironically, might not have been made had the EU draft guidelines not sought to make Gibraltar a bilateral issue between the UK and Spain.

As we face the challenges of Brexit I’m reminded of something Joe Bossano, then opposition leader, told me at the height of the joint sovereignty crisis. We’ll emerge from this even stronger, he said. And so we did with what we now refer to as the ‘double lock’ on sovereignty. I’m confident that, when Brexit is done and dusted, Gibraltar’s resilience will ensure that we can again look to the future with optimism.

Is “Red Len” best for Gibraltar?

The 1.4 million members of Britain’s largest trade union, Unite, have begun voting on who should be the next general secretary. The ballot closes on the 19th of April.

Since 2011 the post has been held by Len McCluskey – ‘Red Len’ as he’s known due to his hard left political views. Mr McCluskey is the overwhelming favourite, having been backed by 1,185 Unite branches across the UK, representing 559,000 members. That’s more than five times the total of his nearest rival, Gerard Coyne, who’s been nominated by 187 branches. The third hopeful is Ian Allinson, an employee of Fujitsu in Manchester. He obtained just 76 branch nominations.

The incumbent also has the unanimous support of Unite Gibraltar, having been endorsed by the Area Committee and each of its four branches – the MOD/ISP, Health and Care and the Public and Private Sector branches. In a GBC interview in March, an official representing the ‘Unite Len McCluskey Support Group’ said Mr McCluskey has opened doors for them both in the UK and the European Parliament and, for the first time ever, granted a seat on the National Executive Council to a Gibraltar member.

Now it may well be that Len McCluskey is indeed the best person to look after the Rock’s interests. But doesn’t a union that prides itself on its democratic credentials have a duty to its members to inform them about the other candidates and what they stand for?

Gerard Coyne for instance also has a solid trade union background having led Unite in the West Midlands for over 15 years. He’s considered more moderate than Mr McCluskey, and has accused the present general secretary of being the puppet master of the Labour Party and more concerned with playing Westminster politics than the bread and butter issues that affect the membership. In his manifesto he pledges to “clean up” Unite and make skills, training and apprenticeships a top priority.

Ian Allinson, meanwhile, has been an activist for 25 years and is the only rank and file candidate. He defends freedom of movement for European Union migrants and has accused Len McCluskey of backsliding on this issue since the EU referendum.

Three credible contenders then, it would seem. Yet Unite Gibraltar only tells you about Len McCluskey.

This is borne out by the above mentioned interview and also a union press release in January that highlighted the local branch’s unanimous support for Mr McCluskey, while not even identifying his two rivals by name.

Evidently the four thousand-plus local members of Unite won’t decide who the next general secretary will be. Nor may they “even move the needle”, as the Chief Minister said of the local contribution to the overall Brexit vote last June. But that’s no reason to deny them the full facts and expect them to simply do what the union leadership tells them.

Discovering Rock

When I retired my colleagues put together a tribute video that I will always treasure.

One of them paid me the ultimate compliment. He said they would miss my deep knowledge of anything worth knowing in the 1970s and 80s – not so much about news or current affairs but about rock music!

He was mistaken of course about my expertise on the subject, but correct in identifying one of my greatest passions.

In my early teens I got my music ‘fix’ from local radio programmes like the Top Twenty Show that I would record on a basic cassette player and curse every time the presenter spoke over a song’s beginning or end.

As I listened contentedly to the likes of Sweet and Slade, Gilbert O’Sullivan and Gary Glitter (oh dear!), I was unaware that a whole new musical world was out there waiting to grab my attention.

That all changed in 1974 (I was 16).

A schoolfriend lent me his copies of Machine Head:

…and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath:

and – well, there was just no going back was there!

Every now and then I’ll write about my favourite bands/albums/concerts (I saw Sabbath in January) . But I’d also like to hear about yours. Why not drop me a line?

A short-lived love-in with Scotland?

Is the romance, such as it was, between Fabian Picardo and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon over? Listening to the Chief Minister on GBC’s Direct Democracy programme it would seem so.

When the UK as a whole voted in last year’s EU Referendum to leave the European Union Gibraltar was left casting about for friends. Scotland, which also voted to remain but by a smaller majority (62% compared with Gibraltar’s 96%), was an obvious ally. Within days talks had taken place and Mr Picardo confirmed in parliament that he and Ms Sturgeon had agreed that they had “a common purpose in exploring possibilities which could achieve our common objectives.” The talk then was of a possible alliance between them and Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, that also voted overwhelmingly against Brexit.

In July the Chief Minister and his deputy Joseph Garcia welcomed the First Minister to Gibraltar House in London. In a statement afterwards Number Six Convent Place said it was agreed that technical teams would continue their work to explore further the potential commonality of interests between Scotland and Gibraltar.

Yet in recent months, unless I missed it, not much has been heard about the work of these technical teams, nor indeed have the words “Scotland” or “Nicola Sturgeon” exactly tripped off the tongue of our political leaders when discussing Brexit.

It may be that the First Minister’s call for a second referendum on Scottish independence, much to the annoyance and consternation of Theresa May’s Conservative government, has had something to do with it. Unlike many Scots, Gibraltarians, for now anyway, have no ambition to be independent and the government may not wish to be associated with that aim.

Whatever the reason, Mr Picardo is certainly singing a different tune now.

“We can take the route of Scotland and confront the Prime Minister on every step she takes”, he said on Direct Democracy, “or we can take the route that we’ve taken.” Which of course means throwing in your lot with Westminster rather than Holyrood, and joining the Joint Ministerial Council on Brexit, whose chairman Robin Walker MP was in Gibraltar last week.

Nicola or Theresa?

At the end of the day Fabian knows which side his bread is buttered on!

KNOWING YOUR A**E FROM YOUR ELBOW

On a bum note, I’m sure the Chief Minister didn’t mean to offend the hard-working professionals in the Gibraltar Health Authority by how he referred to them in last week’s programme.

After denying that morale in the Authority is low following the resignation of several consultants (it’s “higher than ever” he claimed), and attributing recent criticisms of the GHA to the “bad apples” that have been thrown out, Mr Picardo suggested the important people are the “Rump…that are getting on with it.”

Now besides being your backside, the rump is also defined in the Oxford Dictionary as “A small or unimportant remnant of something originally larger.”

Quite the opposite of what Mr Picardo meant, and I’m sure the staff took it in the way it was intended.

Brussels Process Talks, January 1987

In my previous post I shared with you some of my reminiscences of the IRA shootings that took place in Gibraltar in March 1988 and the ensuing inquest. Both were big stories of course but my baptism of fire – not the most appropriate description as you’ll see when you read on – had come the year before.

In January 1987 I was sent to London to cover the latest round of talks under the framework of the Brussels Agreement.

I won’t go into the nitty-gritty here of what the agreement involved as it’s been well documented and there’s plenty of information about it readily available. Suffice to say that the accord, which paved the way for Spain’s eventual accession to the European Economic Community in 1986, grew to be hugely unpopular locally, not least because for the first time the UK agreed explicitly to discuss “the issues of sovereignty” with Spain. It was also seen as an unnecessary face-saver for Madrid, which was in any event obliged to fully open the frontier before joining the EEC.

I had prepared diligently for that, my first assignment abroad, especially when the Conservative government gave its consent for GBC to record a one-to-one interview with the Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe. He was a towering figure in British politics having already served as Chancellor of the Exchequer before moving to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Sir Geoffrey would go on to be the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet.

(L to R: Administrative Secretary Ernest Montado, Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe, Deputy Chief Minister Adolfo Canepa, yours truly, Chief Minister Sir Joshua Hassan)  

I admit I was slightly apprehensive about interviewing such a heavyweight. At the same time I felt a strong sense of responsibility to ask the right questions – the ones my fellow Gibraltarians would want answered. The funny thing looking back now is that I can scarcely remember what I asked!

Instead what I recall most vividly is how bitterly cold it was and the contrast in the British and Spanish attitudes to us journalists as we tried to cope with the sub-zero temperatures.

As luck would have it the time I was in London coincided with the most severe spell of weather in southern England for more than a century. The day of the talks snow lay over 15 centimetres deep in places. Not great when you’re just standing around, waiting to be summoned for the concluding news conference.

The media were, quite literally, left out in the cold at number 1 Carlton Gardens, the Foreign Secretary’s official residence. Had it not been for a friendly Catalan Television film crew who made space for me in their van with the heater turned on full blast I’m not sure I would have survived to tell the tale.

Compare that with the treatment we received at the Spanish Embassy where the Foreign Minister Francisco Fernández Ordóñez gave his own press conference. We were immediately ushered in, relieved of our overcoats and other wet clothes and served tea and biscuits while we waited.

What a shame our next-door neighbours aren’t anywhere near as generous when it comes to accepting the Gibraltarians’ wish to remain British and their right to decide their own future.