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Last Updated: Friday, 14 May, 2004, 09:34 GMT 10:34 UK
Gibraltar vote goes West
By Ollie Stone-Lee
BBC News Online political staff

Gibraltar skyline
Gibraltar will get a European Parliament vote for the first time
The European election battle for south-west England is under way... in Gibraltar.

The Rock might be lapped by the waters of the Mediterranean, not the Bristol Channel, but it is annexed to West Country counties like Cornwall and Devon when it elects MEPs for the first time in June.

It brings the somewhat surreal prospect of a campaign being waged across a thousand miles.

The move stems from a European Court of Human Rights ruling in 1999 saying that the Rock's residents should have a say on who gets sent to the European Parliament.

Gibraltar is too small to have its own MEP and the Electoral Commission decided it should be annexed to the south west, not London or south-east England.

Voting changes

Paul Morris, the region's returning officer, said votes would be counted in Gibraltar and then phoned across to the mainland.

The Rock will get postal or proxy votes for the first time.

"They have a wonderful system where people who are old and infirm have ballot boxes brought to their houses," said Mr Morris, explaining such practices were not allowed under the European election rules.

It's pretty much of a low key affair
Paco Oliba
Editor, Gibraltar Chronicle

The territory has fewer than 20,000 voters - who will join the rest of the South West's 3.8 million-strong electorate in the June polls.

That has not stopped election candidates from taking the election trail to Gibraltar.

Even Tory leader Michael Howard is planning to visit as part of his campaigning programme.

Howard
Michael Howard plans to visit the Rock during the election

But Paco Oliva, editor of the Gibraltar Chronicle, said only 10 people about turned out for a recent public meeting put on by two Tory candidates.

"It's pretty much of a low key affair," he told BBC News Online. "I think the highlight of the whole event was actually obtaining the right to vote.

"Although there have been visits from some candidates, it's not as though it's a local government election and there's very little interest generally."

'Extra flavour'

South West Conservative candidate Neil Parish, who has visited Gibraltar twice since the vote decision was announced, said its votes could make a real difference.

He won the seventh seat in the region in the last elections by 12,500 votes - the kind of margin which could be swung by Gibraltar's votes.

Pointing to the draft EU constitution, Mr Parish spelled out part of his campaign pitch: "They do not want their sovereignty diluted by having joint sovereignty with Spain, nor does Britain want to give away our sovereignty to Brussels."
Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and Tony Blair
Labour denies there will be a backlash against Blair and Straw's Gibraltar talks

He added: "I'm quite looking forward to having the Gibraltarians with us because it will add a little bit of flavour to the pot."

For some people, the West country's history as base to the British fleet which fended off the Armada does give it a shared tradition of enmity to Spain.

Graham Booth, who won the UK Independence Party's one seat in the South West last time, said the Gibraltarians' votes might not make a big difference to the region's result but could still play an important role.

The Rock usually had turnouts of 98%, he said, not the 28% seen in the South West in the 1999 elections.

Graham Booth, UKIP MEP
UKIP's Graham Booth says turnout could be high
"They have just got a vote in the European elections so you can bet your life they will turn out," he said.

UKIP wants Britain to leave the EU and will be arguing that that move would offer Gibraltar better protection.

Liberal Democrat candidate Graham Watson, who has also visited Gibraltar recently, said the impact on the overall result was not the vital point.

"Quite clearly we are doing what we should have done ages ago, which is to enfranchise the people of Gibraltar, who are expected to abide by EU laws without having any say in their framing," he said.

Quite clearly we are doing what we should have done ages ago
Graham Watson
Lib Dem MEP

Mr Watson argued the traditional Lib Dem emphasis on decisions taken at many different levels was well-suited to Gibraltar as part of persuading Spain that the nation state was not the only means of government.

Labour's Glyn Ford said the issues in Gibraltar, such as free movement with Spain, were different from most of the South West.

David Taylor, Green Party candidate
David Taylor hailed new alliances for the Greens
"But they do suffer similar problems of peripherality to parts of Devon and Cornwall," he said.

Mr Ford did not think anger over the British Government's negotiations with Spain would cause a backlash against Labour - despite Tory hopes to the contrary.

The Greens meanwhile have formed an alliance with Gibraltar's Reform Party, whose leader, Lyana Armstrong-Emery, is a candidate for the elections.

Fellow Green candidate David Taylor, who has also been chasing votes on the Rock, said: "Lyana is also campaigning over here in England. That's another twist to this strange phenomenon."




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