gibraltar high point

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

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, this British overseas territory voted for sole UK control by around 99 percent in referendums in 2002 and 1967.

Gibraltar runway intersecting the only road to the Gibraltar-Spanish border (CC BY-SA 4.0; Photo by: Harry Ridgewelll/WikiTribune)
Gibraltar’s runway (left to right) intersects the only road in or out of the territory (CC BY-SA 4.0; Photo by: Harry Ridgewell/WikiTribune)

However, the Gibraltarian identity is also extremely pro-European. Gibraltar Chronicle editor Brian Reyes told WikiTribune that people here have a “British nationality, but with a Mediterranean dimension,” that is “uniquely rooted in this rock.”

While the UK’s Union Jack flag can be seen all over Gibraltar, its gift shops are also full of soft-toy Barbary monkeys – more on them later – sporting European Union (EU) flags.

Although Gibraltar voted overwhelmingly to remain within the EU in the UK’s 2016 referendum, it could be one of the places that will most affected by Brexit, as it is removed from the bloc against its wishes. So WikiTribune visited to find out more.

Toy monkeys - the symbol of gibraltar - in giftshop. One with EU flag. (CC BY SA 4.0; Photo by: Harry Ridgewelll/WikiTribune)
A pro-European toy monkey in a Gibraltar gift shop (CC BY SA 4.0; Photo by: Harry Ridgewell/WikiTribune)

Despite being more than 1,000 miles from the UK, fish and chip shops and red telephone boxes made their way to Gibraltar. Yet, as several locals told WikiTribune, stereotypical, gloomy British attitudes didn’t. According to some Gibraltarians, this positive outlook may be required in an uncertain future.

The UK will leave the EU on March 29, 2019, but Brexit negotiations are ongoing and the country’s future relationship with the EU remains unclear. A final deal will include agreements on the legal status of citizens, border considerations, 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) in 1973.

The post-Brexit ramifications for daily life in Gibraltar could be huge. Gibraltar’s low 10 percent corporate tax rate (PWC) could leave it vulnerable to EU economic sanctions (UK House of Lords Brexit: Gibraltar report). If the UK doesn’t negotiate access to Spanish healthcare for Gibraltar’s citizens, they may have to return to the UK for state-funded specialist medical treatment.

In the same Lords report, Gibraltar’s government highlights that virtually all of its food comes from Spain and all of its waste is transported across the border for processing. All of these issues remain unresolved.

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

People posing with one of Gibraltar's old telephone boxes
People posing with one of Gibraltar’s old telephone boxes (CC BY-SA 4.0; Photo by: Harry Ridgewell/WikiTribune)

Yet the biggest challenge for Gibraltar could be complications to the movement of workers. The 2.6-square-mile territory has boomed in the last 30 years thanks to a low corporation tax attracting global financial, gambling, and gaming companies. These are staffed by thousands of Spanish, EU, and Gibraltarian workers who commute across the Spanish border daily.

Under the key EU pillar of the free movement of people between members this is relatively easy, with up to 40 percent of Gibraltar’s workforce (House of Lords report) commuting to 10,473 jobs in “the Rock” daily. Roughly 94 percent of Gibraltar’s tourists arrived via land through Spain in 2014 (Open Britain report).

All this could soon change. Unless special Brexit arrangements are made, when the UK leaves the EU, the frictionless border between Gibraltar and Spain will cease to exist.

View from above of Gibraltar (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)

Send for more monkeys

Gibraltar is a historically fought-over territory, being a crucial strategic 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. Two Spanish monarchs made unsuccessful attempts to regain the territory in the 18th century, before it developed into a vital base for the UK’s Royal Navy.

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

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

“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 crosses Winston Churchill Avenue, the only entry or exit road, forcing walkers, workers, and commuters to wait several times a day while flights take off and land. These people then have to pass through the Spanish-Gibraltar border, which can take minutes or several 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.

Commuters and vehicles are held back while a flight takes off from the runaway which intersects the road to the Gibraltar-Spanish border (CC BY-SA 4.0; Photo by: Harry Ridgewell/WikiTribune)
Commuters and vehicles are held back while a flight takes off from the runway which intersects the road to the Gibraltar-Spanish border (CC BY-SA 4.0; Photo by: Harry Ridgewell/WikiTribune)

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 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.” 

President of ASCTEG, Molina Sanchez (left) and ASCTEG spokesman Juan Hose (right) Photo by: Harry Ridgewelll/WikiTribune)
ASCTEG President Molina Sanchez (left) and spokesman Juan Hose (right) Photo by: Harry Ridgewell/WikiTribune)

Hose said the right-wing Spanish PP (People’s Party) 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 “were three-hour walking queues and 12-hour car queues” when things were really bad “political wise.”

Vehicles queuing at the border (CC BY-SA 4.0; Photo by: Harry Ridgewelll/WikiTribune
Vehicles queuing at the border for about an hour and a half on their commute on January 24 2018 (CC BY-SA 4.0; Photo by: Harry Ridgewell/WikiTribune)

The tables have turned

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 European Community in 1986 (now the EU). 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 Gibraltar 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 [Gibraltarians] who had voted 96 percent to remain in the EU.” 

But 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)

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, told WikiTribune: “That’s 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 branch, is cautiously more optimistic. “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,” he told WikiTribune.

Gibraltar’s minister for financial services and gaming, Albert Isola, pictured in his government office (CC BY-SA 4.0; Photo by: Juan Carlos Teuma)
Minister for Financial Services and Gaming, Albert Isola, pictured in his government office (CC BY-SA 4.0; Photo by: Juan Carlos Teuma)

But how do people feel on “the Rock?”

WikiTribune visited Gibraltar’s Admiral Casino on Sunday night and asked the locals during bingo night. Gibraltarians were characteristically optimistic while one Brit who had moved to Gibraltar told WikiTribune that if Gibraltar gives up its British flag she would leave, saying: “They [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 first envisaged. Isola said that 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 accessing the EU market. Isola added that the UK has assured Gibraltar that it will have the same access to the UK market after Brexit, and that has given businesses confidence.  

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

Samantha Barrass pictured in the reception of the Atlantic Suites, home to Gibraltar's Financial Services Commission CC BY-SA 4.0; Photo by: Harry Ridgewell/WikiTribune)
Samantha Barrass in the reception of the Atlantic Suites, home to Gibraltar’s Financial Services Commission CC BY-SA 4.0; Photo by: Harry Ridgewell/WikiTribune)

However, Peter Howitt, founder of Ramparts law firm, which is based in the UK and Gibraltar and provides support for financial and tech companies, is less upbeat.

He told WikiTribune that companies benefit from providing services to the EU’s single market and that could be lost. If it is, Howitt said “they would definitely need to have a new company that’s authorized within the EEA [European Economic Area – the EU, Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway].”

Founder and director of Ramparts law firm, Peter Howitt (Copyright: Owned by Ramparts)
Founder and director of Ramparts law firm, Peter Howitt (Copyright: Owned by Ramparts)

Howitt said: “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.”

“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.”

Stuck with the UK

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)

If a special Brexit deal continued the current arrangements, many potential challenges for Gibraltar could be avoided. In November, the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, Fabian Picardo, said [Politico] he wanted a bespoke deal, including keeping freedom of movement and access to the EU single market, even if the UK doesn’t get these.

Henley also told WikiTribune that, when he was in Gibraltar in 2017, “the administration there was aiming for the possibility of some kind of special status.”

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 UK on day one of post-Brexit life in March 2019.

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