Gibraltar to hold general election on eve of Brexit

Gibraltar's chief minister on Monday dissolved parliament and called a general election next month, saying the territory needs "strong leadership" ahead of Britain's scheduled departure from the European Union on October 31st.

Gibraltar to hold general election on eve of Brexit
Photos: AFP

Speaking to a news conference, Fabian Picardo called for the vote to be held on October 17th to ensure a strong government was in place to tackle the fallout from Brexit.   

“Gibraltar will need settled and strong leadership going into Brexit, especially if there is also to be an election in the UK and potentially in Spain thereafter,” said Picardo who was elected for a second term in 2015.

Britain's decision to leave the EU has revived controversy over Spain's long-standing claim to the territory, although it will not change the status of Gibraltar, which is also known as “The Rock”.

Britain's Boris Johnson has tried to push for a snap election to resolve the political deadlock, and Spain is also struggling with a political crisis which could drag the country to a fourth general election in as many years.

During Britain's 2016 referendum on whether to leave the EU, this tiny peninsula of some 30,000 people on Spain's southern tip voted overwhelmingly to remain within the EU.

But six weeks ahead of the deadline, with no divorce deal agreed, Britain looks increasingly likely to crash out without a deal — a scenario which could see Gibraltar particularly badly affected by the imposition of checks at the Spanish border, London admitted last week.

'We are ready'

Despite the persistent uncertainty, Picardo insisted Gibraltar was ready “for any type of Brexit, or no Brexit”.

 “We do not wish to leave the European Union but if we leave, however we may leave, we are ready,” he said, calling for the election of a “strong and proven leadership”.

“There has never been a moment in our history where the choice of this community's political leadership has been more important,” he said, saying a good choice would allow the territory to “thrive as we have always thrived”.

The date of the vote coincides with the start of a two-day European summit in Brussels, which could be the last chance for an agreement between Britain and the EU.

Gibraltar holds a general election every four years and the vote had been due to place before the year's end but until now, no date had been announced.    

The territory has a 17-seat parliament and runs a “first-past-the-post” system, electing a fixed quota of 10 on the government — or ruling coalition — side and seven on the opposition bench.

Picardo's Gibraltar Socialist Labour Party (GSLP) has governed in an alliance with Gibraltar's Liberal Party since 2011.

Spain ceded Gibraltar to Britain in perpetuity in 1713 but has long argued that it should be returned to Spanish sovereignty. London says it will not do so against the wishes of Gibraltarians, who are staunchly pro-British.

Gibraltar is self-governing in all areas except defence and foreign policy. 

READ ALSO: 'No more Brexit concessions possible': Spanish PM warns Johnson

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Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

After years of campaigns and promises British citizens living abroad finally won the lifelong right to vote in UK general elections in April 2022. But campaigners say more needs to be done to allow all those Britons abroad to be able cast their votes easily.

Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

What’s in the law?

The Elections Act 2022 introduced several changes to the current legislation on electoral participation. Among these, it removed the rule by which British citizens lose their voting rights in the UK if they have lived abroad for more than 15 years

The new rules also abolished the requirement to have been previously registered in the UK electoral roll to become an overseas voter. In addition, the registration in the electoral roll will now last up to three years instead of only one year.

It is estimated that these changes could increase the number of overseas voter registrations by some 3 million. But the way new measures will be applied in practice is still to be defined.

READ ALSO: ‘Mixed feelings’ – British citizens in Europe finally get right to vote for life

Defining the practicalities

Under the new law, Britons living abroad will have to register to vote in the last place they were registered in the UK. This means that people who have never lived in the UK will be ineligible to vote, regardless of how long they have been overseas, while those who left when they were children will be able to use a parent or guardian’s address.

But given that the UK does not require residents to register with local councils, how to prove previous UK residence? “Typical documents accepted as a proof of residence are Council tax or utilities bills, but not everyone will have them or will have kept them in an international move,” says Fiona Godfrey, co-founder of the British in Europe coalition.

Ballot papers are pictured in stacks in a count centre as part of the 2019 UK general election. (Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN / AFP)

Other questions concern how people will effectively cast their ballot. UK citizens overseas will be able to vote by post or by proxy or in person at their polling station if they are in the UK at the time of the election. However, few people are likely to travel to the UK for an election and in the past there have problems and delays with postal voting.

The Electoral Commission has recommended that overseas electors appoint a proxy to vote on their behalf. But who could that be for people who have been away from their constituency for a long time?

New secondary legislation will have to answer these questions, defining how to be included in the electoral roll and how to exercise the voting right in practice.

According to British in Europe, the government should present draft legislation in the first half of the year so that the parliament can adopt it before summer and registrations of overseas voters can start in the autumn.

British in Europe survey

British in Europe are currently running a survey to understand the difficulties UK citizens abroad may face in the registration and voting process, as well as their intention to participate in elections.

The survey asks for instance which documents people can access to prove their previous residence in the UK, what problems they had voting in the past, and if and how they plan to vote in the future.

“We need to get an up-to-date picture of British citizens living around the world and have information to make recommendations to the government, as it prepares secondary legislation,” Godfrey said. “If millions of people will exercise their voting rights, there will be consequences for council registration offices, post office and authorities that will manage the process, among other things” she argued.

The right to vote concerns only UK parliamentary elections and national referendums, not elections in the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, or at local level.

The survey is open to UK citizens living anywhere in the world and is available at this link.