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2017-18 Issue V Editors' Picks Europe World

“Pride and Politics”: Gibraltar’s Battle with Brexit

While the streets of London were bustling with last minute electioneering before the vote on whether to remain part of the EU, 1,000 miles away, a very different scene was unfolding. On Gibraltar, the two and a half square mile island off the Southern coast of Spain, the same vote was taking place. But while the choice of the those on the British Isles remained shrouded in a grey cloud of uncertainty, the result in Gibraltar shone as clearly as the Mediterranean sun. An official territory of Great Britain since the 18th century, Gibraltar voted to remain members of the European Union in a landslide 96% to 4% decision. While participation was impressively high in the referendum across all of Britain and its overseas territories, Gibraltar surpassed the general turnout rate by 10 percent, as 82% of its eligible voters went to the polls. But despite their definitive rejection of a populist movement on the other end of the continent, the people of Gibraltar found themselves having to deal with the fall out of a grossly unpopular decision that could affect nearly every aspect of their lives.

Given what was at stake, this landslide vote for “Remain” was unsurprising. Gibraltar relies on a Spanish commuter class to supply nearly half of its workforce, while some Gibraltarians have purchased homes in Spain to take advantage of the reduced real estate value. The people of the island formed their lives around the assumption that their amicable arrangement with Spain would continue unimpeded, though the Brexit decision introduced a great deal of doubt to its longevity.

If in the immediate aftermath of the referendum Britain experienced fairly widespread uncertainty and trepidation for the future, in Gibraltar these sentiments were endemic. While Britons on the isles faced myriad questions regarding the nature of their future relationships with all European nations, for those in Gibraltar the question of their relationship with Spain was far more pressing.

“One of the issues that was raised during the referendum was a concern at the fact that the Spanish foreign minister at the time had a expressed the view that once we left the European Union all of the options would be open to Spain, including closing the border once again,” said Joseph Garcia, the Deputy Chief Minister of Gibraltar, in an interview with The Politic.

“Since then the new Spanish foreign minister has taken a different position and has said that the border is not going to close,” he said. Even so, he continued,“that caused a great deal of unrest and uncertainty in Gibraltar.”

Fighting alongside the Dutch, the British captured the strategically significant island during the War of Spanish Succession in 1704. They maintained military dominance over it until 1713 when, as a clause of the Treaty of Utrecht which brought the war to an end, Spain formally transferred the territory to Britain. Over the next few decades, the Spanish government led two campaigns to reclaim control of Gibraltar, but the British managed to persevere each time.

One hundred and fifty years passed before the dictator Francisco Franco initiated the next major Spanish attempt to reclaim the island. In 1967, after the people of Gibraltar rejected a transfer of their sovereignty to Spain by a 99.3% margin, Franco punished the island by closing the border and breaking its ties to the mainland. Only in the 1980s, as Spain was entering into the European Commision, were relations normalized and the border reopened. A decade  of economic and social integration between Gibraltar and the Spanish followed, and the border has developed into an integral part of thousands of Spaniards’ and Gibraltarians’ daily commutes.

“[If the border were to close] it would be absolutely unacceptable and particularly disgraceful in the context that we didn’t even want to leave the European Union in the first place” said Deputy Chief Minister Garcia. “We are quite happy to remain in the European Union as we are [and] we are not going to accept any change to the British sovereignty of Gibraltar because of pressure from Spain.”

This view is shared by Dominic Searle, the Chief Minister of Gibraltar’s Special Representative in London, who in written correspondence with The Politic reiterated Gibraltar’s rejection of any increase in Spanish authority or renegotiation of sovereignty subsequent to the Brexit decision.  

“The preservation of commercial relations and access through Spain is mutually beneficial to both sides of the border. The current Spanish government recognises that, unlike the Franco government that closed the border in 1969 leaving thousands of Spaniards unemployed, it has a duty to its citizens and those from other EU and non EU countries living there” said Mr. Searle. “Gibraltar will not engage in any sovereignty talks but it has been consistent in being ready to engage in talks on cooperation with authorities in Spain on matters where it (and they) have legal and constitutional competence.”

Over the past three decades the border has evolved from a strict political barrier to a waypoint along a sprawling, interlinked, and international economic community. While a growing distaste for immigration fueled the populist machine of the Vote Leave movement in Great Britain, in Gibraltar such a sentiment is seen as outlandish.

“Here in Gibraltar we have the opposite view [from the Brexiters], we actually welcome immigration. We believe we cannot operate an economy without immigration. Indeed, half of our workforce, 13,000 people of 26,000, half of them, are frontier workers” said Deputy Chief Minister Garcia.

Cathy O’Hanlon, the owner of a popular sailing school in Gibraltar, believes that it is important to look beyond the Spanish government in understanding Gibraltar’s relationship with Spain.

“Spain will always try and impose and influence as they want Gibraltar back due to pride and politics,” she told The Politic in written correspondence. “However the local community, Gibraltarian, Spanish and all the other nationalities that live here, all live in peace.”

While there is a widespread discomfort within Gibraltar that Spanish politicians may try to take political advantage of the situation, those living along either side the border just want for their lives to continue unimpeded.

Despite all the questions, fears, and unexpected circumstances that have arisen as a result of the Brexit vote, Gibraltarians seem to maintain a steadfast knowledge that Gibraltar will continue to be the prosperous, quaintly British Mediterranean island it is, irrespective of any political decision.

“The reality is that nothing has changed. For example economically, Gibraltar continues to receive applications for new financial services institutions that want to set themselves up or online gaming companies that want to establish themselves in Gibraltar as if nothing had happened” said Deputy Chief Minister Garcia.

Though Gibraltar relies heavily on a Spanish workforce, it relies far less on Spain as a trading partner. Even if business were to decline with all countries in the European Union, Dr. Garcia is confident the effect on Gibraltar would be far less harmful than originally feared.

“An economic impact study we conducted after the referendum took place showed that most of our business is with the United Kingdom. It’s not with the European Union. 90% of our business in financial services is with the UK.”

Despite rejecting the Brexit decision, the government of Gibraltar has worked proactively to ensure the island takes full advantage of everything the departure has to offer.

“We took the position that we don’t want to leave the European Union but we have to leave and it’s a question of working out the best possible deal. And what is very clear is that although Brexit will bring challenges there will be new opportunities too. And Gibraltar is ideally poised to take advantage of those opportunities” continued Dr. Garcia.

While in the European Union, Gibraltar has not had full liberty to negotiate its own trade deals abroad. Now as these guidelines are set to dissolve, Gibraltar has focused its attention away from Brussels and the EU.

“In North Africa Gibraltar is ideally placed geographically and if we don’t have the restrictions, if you want to call them that, of the European Union because we’re leaving, then I think new doors are going to open at the same time.”

And even in the case that border travel is restricted and the resident population is forced to increase to maintain the workforce, Ms. O’Hanlon of Trafalgar Sailing does not seem too worried either— “The sailing yachts will make a good escape!”

In what turned out to be a radically undemocratic decision for the people of Gibraltar, the controversial Brexit decision has not yet brought forth any meaningful change to the lives of those involved. Though the widespread commuter migration Gibraltar relies on is caught in the existential limbo of international bureaucracy, the dictatorship of Francisco Franco is a far cry from the democratically elected Spanish government of today and any fear of greatly impeded travel is likely to prove unwarranted. In any case, Gibraltar remains firm in its commitment to remaining British and, despite the immediate unrest over the Brexit decision, increasingly confident in its position as it approaches the one year mark from its ultimate schism.