How will Brexit affect the British territory of Gibraltar?

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  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

The people of Gibraltar have arguably fought harder than Brits in the UK to keep their British identity, fighting off two attempts by the Spanish to reclaim the area in the 18th century and in modern times voted for British sovereignty by over 98 percent in two referendums. They have one key difference with the stereotypical Brit though – they are optimistic. 

The British overseas territory of Gibraltar is a historically fought over piece of land, located at the southern tip of Spain, only 2.6 sq miles in size but a crucial entry and exit point to the Mediterranean Sea, with half of the world’s seaborne trade passing through it. It has been a British Overseas Territory for the last 300 years and legend has it that while its barbary macaques are there it will remain British owned, prompting British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to order more monkeys during WW2, when their numbers fell low.  Nowadays it is less crucial as a military base, but as a financial hub, attracting many insurance, gaming and gambling companies within Europe with its standard 10 percent corporate tax rate (PWC). However, brexit could threaten the lives of the many Spaniards and Gibraltarians who cross the Spanish-Gibraltar border daily and support the sectors Gibraltar’s economic boom relied on.

The UK hasn’t even left the EU yet and the UK’s vote to leave the EU already led a former UK politician to threaten the UK could go to war with Spain (Vox). And despite the possibility of Gibraltar being more punished by brexit than the UK, toy Barbary macaques – the symbol of Gibraltar – still sport EU flags on them in most of Gibraltar’s gift shops. The editor of the Gibraltar Chronicle told WikiTribune there’s a lot of uncertainty post brexit but “this is a pretty resilient community. I mean, we’ve seen challenge in the past … we’re optimists, seriously.” Meanwhile on the mainland, 65 percent of UK citizens are either ‘not particularly confident’ or ‘not at all confident’ that Theresa May can secure them a good brexit deal, according to a January poll by What UK Thinks: EU.

Known as ‘the Rock’ by locals, Gibraltar is reliant on workers crossing the Spanish-Gibraltar border for many of the financial services that it exports to the UK. Under the EU pillar of free movement, up to 40 percent of Gibraltar’s workforce (UK Lords report: PDF) commute to ‘the Rock’ daily and roughly 94 percent of Gibraltar’s tourists come via land through Spain, (Open Britain report) enabling its tourism, gambling and gaming sectors to function. This is despite it having its own airport on Winston Churchill avenue, the only entry or exit road to Gibraltar, forcing walkers and commuters to wait several times a day while flights take off and land. 

A friction-less border is beneficial for the many Spanish and Gibraltarian workers coming from the nearby Spanish town of La Linea too, as it has one of the highest unemployment rates in Europe at about 35.5 percent (TheOlivePress). But crossing the border isn’t always plain sailing. Gibraltar Chronicle editor Brian Reyes told WikiTribune “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.” 

In 2014 Spain imposed three days of increased vehicle searches in protest to the construction of an artificial reef created in Gibraltarian water’s that Spain saw as its own, creating huge queues on the border. 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.” 

ASCTEG spokesman Juan Hose says the Spanish PP (People’s Party) uses excuses of drugs, arms, and money smuggling across the border to justify searching everyone and causing long queues, but they never find anything and that really their motivation is political. “It’s ridiculous,” he says. “When we are so close … The two cities are together … it’s like a big city.”

Local Gibraltarian Stephanie Martinez told WikiTribune the worst she’s experienced “were three hour walking queues and twelve hour car queues” when things were really bad “political wise” for what would otherwise be a five minute walk through the border. Another commuter says the border problems arise “when these police officers from Madrid come down to help, the ones with the hats.”

While under EU membership, Gibraltar has been protected by such disputes to a degree, with the EU rejecting Spain’s demands to dismantle the reef and there being no threat of a permanent border closure, as this would be against EU membership rules.

Revenge a long time coming

In 1969 Spanish dictator Franco closed the Spanish-Gibraltar border and it was not reopened until the 1980’s, after the UK threatened Spain that unless they re-opened the border the UK would veto Spain’s entry to the European Community (now European Union). Now the tables have turned.

The EU gave Spain the option to veto a transitional period and any brexit deal offered to the UK from applying to Gibraltar, in its 2017 draft brexit guidelines, posing another brexit related problem for the UK Prime Minister. Presumably the EU did this because Spain disputes Gibraltar’s British sovereignty and it’s going to side with the country that will remain an EU member.

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 [Gibraltarians] who had voted 96 percent to remain in the European Union.” 

But Garcia says that Gibraltar’s government’s view is that clause 22, which essentially gives Spain the veto, “is illegal” and that they will challenge it in court if Spain chooses to invoke it. However, if Spain vetoed the UK’s brexit deal from applying to Gibraltar, and Gibraltar’s challenge was unsuccessful, would Theresa May reject a UK deal which didn’t include Gibraltar? It seems unlikely that she would put a population of roughly 30,000, ahead of 65 million people in the UK, even if Garcia says David Davis, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, assured the Gibraltarian Government that “they would not do the deal without Gibraltar.”

Fredrick Martin, a senior trade union official for Unite’s Gibraltar trade union branch, and soon to be president of the Cross Frontier Group, a group representing businesses and trade unions on both sides of the border, says: “I don’t think that they’ll [the UK will] actually believe that it’s good and proper to throw them [Gibraltar] underneath the bus, as it were, for the purpose of getting a better deal. I don’t think that’s going to be the case. Fingers crossed.”

But where would no deal leave Gibraltar? After the UK’s decision to leave the EU, Gibraltar’s Minister for Financial Services and Gaming, Albert Isola, told WikiTribune it felt like a “morgue”, but for Gibraltarians it might not be as bad as first envisaged. He says Gibraltar’s government completed a sectoral analysis of the effect of brexit and it found that roughly 90 percent of its financial services sector is accessing the UK market and 10 percent accessing the EU market. Minister Isola says the UK has assured them that Gibraltar will have the same access to the UK market post brexit and that has given businesses confidence.  

However, the founder of Ramparts law firm, a business based in the UK and Gibraltar, providing support for financial and tech-related companies, says: “I can’t think of many people who, or in fact 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.”

Peter Howitt says “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.”


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