With Brexit, Gibraltar a rock in a hard place
Border and economy questions rise
GIBRALTAR | Negotiations over Britain’s exit from the European Union starting this week are likely to prove long and difficult, but perhaps nowhere will they be more disruptive than on this rock outcropping/ colony of 32,000 British subjects that juts out of Spain’s southern tip.
Brexit is casting uncertainty for communities throughout the United Kingdom and Europe that will be affected by changes in trade, freedom of movement and job prospects, as British Prime Minister Theresa May tries to win the best possible exit deal from the EU.
But few have as much directly at stake as the Gibraltarians, 95 percent of whom voted last year in favor of staying in the EU out of fear that they could be left at the mercy of Spanish designs to impose its sovereignty on “The Rock.” Along with Northern Ireland, Gibraltar is one of the few places where Britain shares a land border with another EU state, complicating the divorce proceedings immensely.
Spain lost Gibraltar in an 18th-century war with Britain, which established a naval base at the strategic entrance to the Mediterranean and colonized it with migrant laborers from Malta, Cyprus and parts of North Africa, as well as with native Spaniards from southern Andalucia. Spain has been trying to claw back the small spit of land ever since.
Right-wing dictator Francisco Franco, who ruled Spain during much of the last century, closed the narrow land connection to Gibraltar as a way of pressuring Britain for its return. The border was reopened when Spain joined the EU in the 1980s under a democratic government. The joint membership of London and Madrid in the EU tended to limit tensions over Gibraltar to a low simmer, but Brexit will bring changes in policy on Gibraltar, a senior Spanish official said.
One clause in the EU statement last month outlining conditions for Brexit negotiations stipulates that Spain must approve any new trade arrangement with Britain over Gibraltar.
“Brexit leaves us unprotected,” said Jonathan Sacramento, news director at the Gibraltar Broadcasting Corp., Gibraltar’s main TV channel. “If Spain shuts the border again, it would totally paralyze our economy.”
Spanish Foreign Minister Jose GarciaMargallo did little to calm fears after the shock result in the British referendum last year, saying Brexit represented “Spain’s big chance to recover Gibraltar.”
Spain also flexed its muscle in August 2013 when police beefed up border controls over a plan by Gibraltar officials to build an artificial reef that hampered Spanish fishing vessels operating in contested waters. Vehicle and pedestrian traffic in and out of The Rock ground to a virtual halt over several days as passports and bags were meticulously inspected under the blazing sun.
“If Spain creates long border queues today, God help us after Brexit,” said Paul Delmar, a taxi driver who earns his living by ferrying tourists from the border barriers to the historic town center lined with pubs and duty-free shops.
In the 2013 standoff, a special EU delegation flew in to urge the Spanish government to relax border controls. The locals say they know there will be no such intervention after Brexit.
Not a pawn
Despite the cloud hanging over Gibraltar’s future, some are putting on a brave face.
“Gibraltar is not going to be a pawn in the Brexit negotiations,” said Gibraltar’s main elected official, Chief Minister Fabian Picardo, who downplays much of the scare talk.
He noted that 92 percent of Gibraltar’s trade is with Britain, mainly in financial services. A fifth of all British auto insurance policies are written in Gibraltar, according to the local government, which offers tax advantages to insurance companies and banks. Because of its unique status, Gibraltar has become one of the world’s biggest centers of online gambling, which is responsible for 1 in 10 jobs in the enclave.
With Brexit clipping access to the British market, Mr. Picardo said, Englishspeaking EU nations such as Malta and Ireland may turn to Gibraltar as a gateway