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What Brexit means for Gibraltar and the people of ‘The Rock’

  1. Gibraltarians proudly British and equally European
  2. Border is a 300-year-old point of contention thousands cross daily
  3. Spain holds a veto over British terms for Brexit – and the Rock is a pawn

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Thom Bjork

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Thom Bjork

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José Salavert-Torres

As soon as you walk out of Gibraltar International Airport and turn onto Winston Churchill Avenue past the red pillar post boxes it’s obvious this outpost of the United Kingdom on Spain’s southern tip is proud to be British.

“The Rock” – a limestone thumb about twice the size of Central Park and a bit taller than the Empire State Building – has been subject to a 300-year custody battle between London and Madrid. Gibraltarians voted almost unanimously to stay under United Kingdom control in 2002 and 1967. They voted by a similar margin for Britain to stay in the European Union (EU) in the Brexit vote in which the rest of the UK narrowly voted to leave. That’s thrown their political and economic future, and way of life as Mediterranean British citizens, into doubt.

A view from above Gibraltar with the airport runway and port in foreground (CC BY SA 4.0; Author: Port of Gibraltar)
A view from above Gibraltar with the airport runway and port in foreground (CC BY SA 4.0; Author: Port of Gibraltar)

Brian Reyes, editor of the Gibraltar Chronicle, says Gibraltarians have a “British nationality, but with a Mediterranean dimension … uniquely rooted in this rock.”

While the Union Jack can be seen all over Gibraltar, gift shops are also full of soft-toy Barbary monkeys – more on them later – sporting EU flags.

With its blink-and-you-miss-it border with Spain and the neighboring town of La Linea de Concepcion, Gibraltar is a part of the UK that will be greatly affected by Brexit. Like Northern Ireland – whose border with Ireland is just as contentious as the one between Gibraltar and Spain – you can walk to Europe and vice versa.

Fish and chip shops, red telephone boxes, and pointy police hats made their way to Gibraltar with the British. Now that way of life, where pies and paella coexist and many Gibraltarians speak in a stream of Andalusian-accented Spanish and English, is challenged by Brexit.

The UK is due to leave the EU on March 29, 2019, but Brexit negotiations are ongoing and the terms of the country’s future relationship with the EU remain unclear. Immigration, borders, trade, sovereignty – all critical questions in Gibraltar – are to be decided. A final deal should include agreements on the legal status of citizens, borders, financial obligations, and the unpicking or consolidation of a range of other political arrangements made since the UK joined the bloc, then European Economic Community (EEC), in 1973.

Brexit feels real on the border

The post-Brexit ramifications for daily life in Gibraltar are real and huge. Apart from walking or riding a scooter to and fro across the border to work, shop, live, eat, and love, there are huge economic implications. Gibraltar’s low 10 percent corporate tax rate (PWC) – less than half the prevailing rate across the border in Spain or back in the UK – could leave it vulnerable to EU economic sanctions (UK House of Lords Brexit: Gibraltar report) against undue tax competition.

If the UK doesn’t negotiate access to Spanish healthcare for Gibraltar’s citizens – which they get on a reciprocal basis now – they may have to return to the UK for state-funded specialist medical treatment.

In the same report from the British parliament’s upper house, Gibraltar’s government highlighted that virtually all of its food comes from Spain and all of its waste is transported across the border for disposal. All of these basic questions of life are unresolved and pose the biggest challenges to life on the Rock since civilians were evacuated during World War Two and a 16-year closure of the border between 1969 and 1985.

Reyes from the Gibraltar Chronicle said while there’s uncertainty in Gibraltar “this is a pretty resilient community. I mean, we’ve seen challenge in the past … we’re optimists.”

A map of Europe showing the UK, Spain and Gibraltar One of the highest points of Gibraltar (CC BY-SA 4.0; Graphic by: Harry Ridgewell/WikiTribune)
A map of Europe showing the UK, Spain and Gibraltar (CC BY-SA 4.0; Graphic by: Harry Ridgewell/WikiTribune)

The biggest challenge for Gibraltar could be any new rules on the movement of workers. The 2.6-square-mile territory has boomed in the last 30 years thanks to a low corporation tax – combined with British law – attracting global financial, gambling, and gaming companies. These are staffed by Gibraltarians but also thousands of Spanish, and EU workers who commute across the Spanish border daily with barely a wave of their passports or identity cards.

Under the key EU pillar of the free movement of people between member states this is easy unless there is a political row between Madrid and London which occasionally crops up. Up to 40 percent of Gibraltar’s workforce (House of Lords report) commuted to more than 10,000 jobs on the Rock each day. Virtually all Gibraltar’s tourists arrive from Spain (Open Britain report).

‘Britain will always stand up for the people of Gibraltar’ – former UK PM

All this could soon change. Unless special Brexit arrangements are made, when the UK leaves the EU, the border between Gibraltar and Spain will no longer be “frictionless.”

Monkeying with history

Gibraltar is fought-over territory, a strategic choke point between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. It was captured by Anglo-Dutch forces in 1704, during the War of the Spanish Succession, and Spain ceded it to Great Britain as part of the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, settling that conflict. Two Spanish monarchs made unsuccessful attempts to regain the territory in the 18th century, before it developed into a vital base for the Royal Navy, particularly in World War Two. Now it is perceived as an important strategic point in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The matching peaks of the Moroccan coastline in Africa are visible most days across the narrow Straits of Gibraltar.

During a 2013 meeting to try and solve a border dispute triggered with Spain, then Prime Minister David Cameron said: “Britain will always stand up for the people of Gibraltar.”

However, earlier that year Cameron had pledged to hold the UK referendum on EU membership. He campaigned to remain in the EU, lost, and resigned. The day after that vote in 2016, former Spanish Foreign Affairs Minister, Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo, called for shared British-Spanish sovereignty of Gibraltar, causing senior UK politicians to suggest that the UK could even go to war with Spain (Vox).

According to legend as long as the Barbary macaque colony remains in place, the territory will stay under British control. This even caused UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill to import more monkeys from Morocco during World War Two, when their number dipped to just seven to stay true to the promise.

The Rock is now home to around 160 Barbary macaques, which have become a symbol of the territory and a major tourist attraction, though nobody is quite sure where they originally came from.

Gibraltar barbary macaques are often called Barbary apes but they are actually a species of monkeys, and not apes. Nobody is quite sure how they got to Gibraltar. (CC BY-SA 4.0; Photo by: Harry Ridgewelll/WikiTribune
Barbary macaques are often called Barbary apes but they are actually a species of tailless monkey. (CC BY-SA 4.0; Photo by: Harry Ridgewell/WikiTribune)

Not your average commute

Gibraltar’s airport runway – which civilian airlines share with Royal Air Force and NATO aircraft – crosses Winston Churchill Avenue, the only entry or exit road. Pedestrians, cars, and trucks wait on either side of the runway several times a day for flights to take off and land. Just down the road they then pass through the Spain-Gibraltar border. People cross with shopping – alcohol is much cheaper in Gibraltar for example – and cigarette smuggling has historically been a specialty. Searches can be non-existent, cursory, or forensic depending on the political mood between Madrid and London, or how cheeky smugglers have been that week, meaning crossing can take moments or hours.

A frictionless border with Gibraltar is important to the neighboring Spanish region of Andalusia and the next-door town, La Linea which has one of the highest unemployment rates in Europe at around 35 percent.

Lord Boswell, the Chairman of the European Union Committee which produced the Lords report, told WikiTribune that it’s “a mutually beneficial process” and that border restrictions “would take things back 30 years minimum.”

But crossing the border isn’t always plain sailing. Reyes told WikiTribune that “the border has in the past been used almost as a political pressure point. So it’s like a tap. Turn it on, turn it off.” A dispute over Gibraltar creating a concrete scuba diving attraction allegedly on La Linea fishermen’s favorite spots triggered enormous delays in the mid-2000s.

A spokesman for ASCTEG, a group representing Spanish workers working in Gibraltar, told WikiTribune: “Gibraltar was accepted in the UEFA [European soccer championship] right. Problems on the border, two, three, four days … Someone from the British royal family came to Gibraltar for a visit, border closed.” 

Hose said Spanish authorities – especially when the right-wing Spanish PP (People’s Party) is in power – uses the excuses of drugs, arms, and money-smuggling to justify searching everyone and causing long lines, but its real motivation is political. “It’s ridiculous,” he said. “When we are so close … The two cities are together … it’s like a big city.”

Gibraltarian Stephanie Martinez told WikiTribune that she has experienced “three-hour walking queues and 12-hour car queues” when things were really bad “political-wise.”

In 1969 Spanish dictator Franco closed the Spain-Gibraltar border. It was not fully reopened until 1985, after the UK threatened Madrid that unless it did so London would veto Spain’s entry to the EEC in 1986. Now the tables have turned.

In its 2017 draft Brexit guidelines, the EU gave Spain an effective veto over Gibraltar by stating that no deal on the EU’s future relationship with the UK would apply to the territory without Spain’s agreement.

Gibraltar’s Deputy Chief Minister Joseph Garcia told WikiTribune: “People felt that it [giving Spain a veto] was an unnecessary slap in the face to people who had voted 96 percent to remain in the EU.” 

Garcia said that Gibraltar’s government’s view is that Spain’s veto “is illegal” and Gibraltar will challenge it in court if Madrid invokes it.

WikiTribune journalist Harry Ridgewell interviewing Gibraltar's chief minister, Joseph Garcia (CC BY-SA 4.0; Photo by: Harry Ridgewell/WikiTribune)
WikiTribune journalist Harry Ridgewell interviewing Gibraltar’s chief minister, Joseph Garcia (CC BY-SA 4.0; Photo by: Harry Ridgewell/WikiTribune)

A special deal

However, if Madrid vetoed the UK Brexit deal and Gibraltar’s challenge failed, would London reject a deal which didn’t include Gibraltar? It seems unlikely that the UK would put Gibraltar’s 30,000 population ahead of 65 million people on the mainland, even if Garcia says David Davis, the UK Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, assured him that “they would not do the deal without Gibraltar.”

As Jon Henley, The Guardian’s European affairs correspondent, said: “That’s the $64,000 question. It’s pretty hard to see that the rights of the small rock off the southern tip of Spain are going to be privileged over a vital sector of the UK economy.”

Fredrick Martin, a senior trade union official for Unite‘s Gibraltar branch, expresses more optimism. “I don’t think [the UK will] actually believe that it’s good and proper to throw [Gibraltar] underneath the bus … for the purpose of getting a better deal … Fingers crossed.”

At Gibraltar’s Admiral Casino on a recent Sunday night locals were playing bingo. One British woman, who had recently moved to the Rock said she’d leave if the flag came down: “They [the Spanish] don’t really want Gibraltar, they want to bring Gibraltar down, for nothing.”

Gibraltar’s minister for financial services and gaming, Albert Isola, told WikiTribune that after the referendum it felt like a “morgue,” but it might not be as bad as it seemed at first. Isola said the Gibraltar government’s sectoral analysis on Brexit found that roughly 90 percent of its financial services sector is accessing the UK market and just 10 percent the EU.

‘Most people consider this to be a kind of train wreck, in slow motion’ – law firm head

Samantha Barrass, chief executive officer of the Gibraltar Financial Services Commission, said she’s seeing a “very calm reaction, and not the kind of sight that some people feared.” New applications have increased in a way she hadn’t anticipated and firms are being “quite realistic and pragmatic,” she said. They’re talking about staying and setting up new subsidiaries in another European jurisdiction.

Peter Howitt, founder of Ramparts law firm, which is based in Gibraltar and the UK and serves financial and tech companies, notes the potential for additional costs.  [Financial service] companies in Gibraltar depend on access to the EU’s single market and “they would definitely need to [also] have a new company that’s authorized within the EEA [European Economic Area – the EU, Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway]” as well as their offices in Gibraltar or the UK.

“I can’t think of … anyone, who’s said that they’ve watched this unfold with confidence. Most people consider this to be a kind of train wreck, in slow motion, watching the establishment in the UK tear itself apart to some extent,” he said. 

If a special Brexit deal continued the current arrangements many potential challenges for Gibraltar could be avoided. In November 2016, the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, Fabian Picardo, said [Politico] he wanted a “bespoke” deal for Gibraltar, including keeping freedom of movement and access to the EU single market, even if the UK doesn’t get these. It’s not clear whether Gibraltar’s government is still pursuing this. When WikiTribune asked whether Gibraltar is pushing for a special deal, financial services minister Isola said: “I don’t believe we are.”

Deputy Chief Minister Garcia told WikiTribune that Gibraltar is looking to maintain the status quo during a Brexit transition period and will then look “to negotiating a new relationship with the EU once we’re out.”

It seems that Gibraltar – and its Mediterranean-but-British people – will have the same deal as the United Kingdom on day one of post-Brexit life in March 2019. Lawyer Howitt says the choice is ultimately the same: “A decision needs to be made about whether the UK or the Conservative Party is gonna pursue a ‘little England,’ splendid isolationist policy, which is a risk, I think. Or whether it’s gonna actually look at what the UK’s position should be in the modern world.”


Sources & References

  • Gibraltar’s rock is 426 meters high – slightly less than 100 double-decker buses: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rock_of_Gibraltar

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Harry is one of the journalists at WikiTribune. He is a masters graduand from Cardiff University, with a diploma in Magazine Journalism. He has an interest in politics and science, having previously studied Geography at Aberystwyth University. Follow Harry on Twitter @harryridgewell

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