As soon as you leave Gibraltar’s airport onto Winston Churchill Avenue, it’s obvious that this UK outpost at Spain’s southern tip is very proud to be British. The subject of a three centuries-long sovereignty battle between London and Madrid, the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar voted for sole UK control by around 99 percent in referendums in 2002 and 1967.
However, Gibraltarian’s identity is also extremely pro-European. Speaking to WikiTribune, Gibraltar Chronicle editor Brian Reyes described themselves as having a “British nationality, but with a Mediterranean dimension to it” that’s “uniquely rooted in this rock.” While the UK’s Union Jack flag can be seen all over Gibraltar, the territory’s gift shops are full of soft toy Barbary macaques sporting EU flags.
And although Gibraltar voted overwhelmingly to remain within the European Union (EU) in the UK’s 2016 referendum, it could be one of the most punished by Brexit, as it is dragged out by the UK leaving this bloc. Therefore WikiTribune visited to find out more.
Despite being more than 1,000 miles from the UK, fish and chip shops and outdated red telephone boxes still made their way to Gibraltar but unlike these clichés, the stereotypical, gloomy British attitude didn’t. That may be a good thing as a positive nature may be required in Gibraltar’s uncertain post Brexit future.
Reyes says there’s a lot of post-referendum uncertainty here 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.
The 2.6-square-mile territory has boomed in the last 30 years thanks to its low corporation tax attracting companies which are staffed by thousands of Spanish and Gibraltarian workers who commute across the Spanish border daily.
Under the EU pillar of free movement this is made easier, with up to 40 percent of Gibraltar’s workforce (UK Lords report: PDF) commuting to “the Rock” daily and roughly 94 percent of Gibraltar’s tourists coming via land through Spain in 2014 (Open Britain report). But this could all change.
Brexit negotiations are still ongoing and the UK’s relationship with the EU unclear, but a key tenant of being an EU member is allowing EU members’ citizens the ability to move freely between them. When the UK is no longer an EU member, unless special Brexit negotiations are made, the frictionless border between Gibraltar and Spain will cease to exist.
And on top of each EU member having a veto on the final Brexit deal offered to the UK, the European Commission granted Spain a controversial second veto on whether that deal applies specifically to Gibraltar – controversial because of Spain and Gibraltar’s history.
Gibraltar is a historically fought-over territory, being a crucial entry and exit point to the Mediterranean Sea. 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, when they lost.
Gibraltar is now less crucial as a military base, but it’s booming as a financial hub, attracting insurance, gaming, and gambling companies from all over Europe with its standard 10 percent corporate tax rate (PwC).
Send for more monkeys
Despite there now being peace between Gibraltar and Spain, Brexit prompted the previous Spanish Foreign Affairs Minister, Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo, to call for shared British-Spanish sovereignty of Gibraltar, causing a former senior UK politician to threaten that the UK could go to war with Spain (Vox).
According to legend however, while Gibraltar’s Barbary macaques remain in Gibraltar, the territory will stay British owned. It even prompted UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill to import more monkeys from Morocco during World War Two, when their number dipped to just seven.
Not your average commute
Gibraltar’s airport runway crosses Winston Churchill Avenue, the only entry or exit road into the territory, forcing walkers, workers and commuters to wait several times a day while flights take off and land. These visitors also have to go through the Spanish-Gibraltar border, which can take minutes or hours.
A friction-less border is vital to Gibraltar’s economy and workers from the Spanish town of La Linea just across the border too, as it has one of the highest unemployment rates in Europe at about 35 percent.
But crossing the border isn’t always plain sailing. 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 in 1986 (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 problem for the UK Prime Minister Theresa May.
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.” As The Guardian‘s European affairs corespondent, Jon Henley, put it to WikiTribune: “The $64,000 question, isn’t it … 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 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, is cautiously more optimistic. “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,” he told WikiTribune.
But where would no Brexit 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, told WikiTribune: “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.”