Keep calm and carry on. Despite being easier said than done, that is exactly what the small British territory of Gibraltar is doing. With Brexit potentially jeopardizing their national identity, existential threats from Spain, and monkeys running wild, Gibraltar has nevertheless been out of the spotlight. The Perspective reports from the UK on the Iberian Peninsula.
It goes without saying that the New Year’s Eve celebrations of 2020 will be out of the ordinary. As if a pandemic was not enough, the UK’s transition period with the EU ends when the bells of 2021 ring.
Most eyes will be on Northern Ireland. The border crossing to the EU member state of the Republic of Ireland has been open for free passage of people since 1923, and free of goods since 1993. If there is no deal between the UK and the EU on the 1st of January of 2021, these freedoms will temporarily remain. However, no one knows what will happen if no long-term arrangement is agreed upon.
Two thousand kilometres south of the Northern Irish border is the UK territory of Gibraltar, the only British landmass on the European continent. It has around 34 000 inhabitants, and borders Spain and the Mediterranean Sea.
Seeing as 15 000 people cross from Spain into Gibraltar for work every morning, Brexit is a real headache for the Gibraltarian government. If Chief Minister Fabian Picardo could be granted one wish from Boris Johnson, cancelling Brexit is first on the list.
“There are huge environmental, human, social, political, and economic costs to a no-deal Brexit. A no-deal Brexit is a bad solution for everyone, including those who wanted Brexit.”
Fears of division
Picardo despises national and political division. His coalition government consisting of the Labour Party and the Liberal Party has overwhelming support in Gibraltar.
“I think the whole world can learn from our coalition here in Gibraltar since we have been working together for over two decades now. (…) With 61 percent support, I think that we have done something right.”
Watching the UK tear itself apart over Brexit has been distressing for the people of Gibraltar. Around 52 percent of British citizens voted to leave the EU, whereas that number was only four percent in Gibraltar.
“We can choose to accentuate the things that we have in common, or we can go with the things that divide us. (…) I would rather spend my time building than dividing.”
Deputy Chief Minister and leader of the Liberal Party, Joseph Garcia, agrees with Picardo.
“It is possible to have several identities. We are Gibraltarian, British, and European. We have no conflict between those. Sadly, that was the debate we lost during the 2016 referendum when people felt there was a conflict, when in our view, there certainly is not one.”
Despite Brexit being extremely disadvantageous for Gibraltar, they must keep calm and carry on.
“Gibraltarians came to terms with the fact that we were part of a wider referendum, and its result was that the UK was going to leave the EU. If the UK leaves, we must leave as well.”
Gibraltar’s no-deal challenges
If the UK crashes out of the EU, that will come with a huge logistical cost. British citizens will be required to apply for international driving permits for driving within EU member states. This will especially affect Gibraltarians since they regularly drive to Spain and Portugal.
“Once you leave, you will notice that things you take for granted will become a real problem”, says Garcia.
Importing food products from outside the EU, naturally including the UK, will become a challenge for Gibraltar. The government is looking at potential solutions involving Morocco, Portugal, Spain, and even shipping goods directly from the UK without entering the EU. This is an unexpected environmental cost to a no-deal Brexit, says John Cortes, Gibraltar’s environment minister.
“A no-deal Brexit is a concern for everyone who cares about the environment”
The biggest concern, however, is the movement of people. The freedom of movement has been the most important benefit of EU membership for Gibraltar. A no-deal Brexit jeopardizes this, risking to seriously damage the economy on both sides of the border.
Gibraltar has experienced border bottlenecks before, most recently in 2016. Yet, the most extreme example was when Spain’s General Franco completely closed the border to Gibraltar. That lasted for 16 years. Joseph Garcia wants to avoid border issues at all costs.
“This is the kind of Pandora’s Box leaving the European Union has opened.”
Shaky relationship with Spain
Gibraltar’s relationship with Spain is “essential in two ways”, Chief Minister Picardo points out.
“When it is good, it is economically very helpful to Gibraltar. When it is bad, it is very positive in a socio-cohesive way. There is nothing that unites us more as a people than having to confront an unfair Spain that is pursuing our sovereignty. Gibraltarians see the silver lining in everything.”
Whenever there is a far-right government in power in Madrid, such as the Rajoy government of 2011-2018, the relationship turns sour, explains Liberal Party leader Joseph Garcia.
“The right-wing tends to be more aggressive in the way they do things. Spanish foreign minister José Manuel García-Margallo was very, very anti-Gibraltar. He was obsessed with the whole idea of Spain taking over sovereignty of Gibraltar.”
Today, the relationship with Spain has improved significantly. Deputy Chief Minister Garcia finds the current Sánchez government to have a “very modern approach to Gibraltar.”
“Their view is that the people here should have the right to decide their own future. (…) The Spanish socialists tend to be more pragmatic on Gibraltar.”
EU strengthens UK ties to Gibraltar
Gibraltar has been heavily favoured by the EU’s single market system. It gave the territory direct access to the UK market through the abolishment of internal borders and regulatory obstacles for goods. This provided a psychological proximity to the UK, a reminder that Gibraltarians indeed are British.
“Those were the key benefits which Gibraltarians saw in respect of our EU membership, ironically”
Chief Minister Picardo sighs, while leaning back in his chair.
“At the end of the day, it is the people who make the decisions.”
There is no doubt that Gibraltarians are proud to be Brits. As severe as a no-deal Brexit is for Gibraltar, that reality looks likely to endure. Only time and history will tell if Brexit truly united or divided the United Kingdom.