During the campaign of the Brexit referendum, very little or almost nothing was debated about the consequences of leaving the EU with respect to the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar. One might think the importance of the fate of over 30,000 British citizens is minor compared to the outcome of a whole nation, but try to tell that to the Gibraltarians who voted to remain with an overwhelming 96% choosing to stay in the EU. This massive support to the Remain campaign cannot be read as an unconditional love to the EU and its values but more likely as an attempt to protect their own status quo.
Gibraltar’s economy is very strong. Many bookmakers and online gaming companies operate from the Rock due to their very favourable corporate tax regime. Tourism benefits from VAT free in goods and services and a special tax treatment for international business saw the growth of private banking and other branches of financial services. There is no surprise only 4% voted to leave the EU. The Gibraltarians voted indeed with their wallet and not with their heart knowing that an exit from the EU could jeopardize their financial stability.
About 13,000 people, 8,000 of them Spaniards, walk into Gibraltar to work each day. It’s estimated that Gibraltar spend around €500m a year on Spanish goods and services. Their non-official language is llanito, an English-Andalusian Spanish dialect unique to Gibraltar. Such is the depth of the relation forged in the area that the local trade unions and heads of commerce have constant meetings to highlight the importance of a smooth border and “a sensible, orderly and well-managed Brexit”.
It’s not a surprise that the common sense seen in the locals is nowhere to be seen in both Governments. Spain could use this opportunity to try to get Gibraltar back and fulfill an obsession that has lasted for centuries and if Madrid uses its veto in the Brexit negotiations to exclude Gibraltar from any Brexit deal between the EU and the UK, Gibraltarian authorities have threatened with rescinding the rights and protections enjoyed by Spanish and other EU nationals living and working in the territory. This outcome will be an immense disaster in the region, in particular to Gibraltar’s Spanish neighbours, the town of La Línea de la Concepción, which grew up on the trade from Gibraltar.
As we have seen in Northern Ireland, Governments are too quick to forget recent History. Twice have the Gibraltarians voted to stay British and in both occasions (1967 and 2002) by an impressive majority. Whether their reasons are economical or patriotic the llanitos wish to remain British so any attempt from the Spanish Government to get Gibraltar back will only add more anguish to an already delicate future post Brexit. Avoiding a hard border should be a priority. Under the dictatorship of Franco the border was permanently closed in 1967. He did not like the result of their referendum. Darkness grew in the area. Families were separated on either side. Everyone remembers the images of grandmothers meeting their grandkids over the fence. The economic consequences in the region were also extremely severe. Politicians might have forgotten the pain but the resentment is still palpable in the population and so is the fear to be isolated once again. The border was only reopened to pedestrians in 1983 and fully to vehicles ahead of Spain’s entry to the EU in 1985.
In an ironic twist the llanos face again the uncertainty of a future they voted vastly against. Their financial paradise is in danger and only time will tell how British they will remain if their status quo is compromised. The solution is not for Spain to try and regain the Rock, but to offer Gibraltar and the British Government a new diplomatic route towards a new and adventurous bilateral status. This could give the Gibraltarians the best of both worlds. That will require a huge amount of good will and imagination. An almost impossible task against the clock but one that is needed if we are to avoid history repeating itself.