Brexit: Gibraltar keeps calm but is ready to play hardball

Not content with a list of daily specials – options on an overcast early spring morning include fried cheese-and-chorizo balls or scotch egg and chips – the cafe down the road from the headquarters of the Gibraltar government also dispenses advice.

“Keep calm and eat British fish and chips,” reads one sign by the door. “Keep calm and drinktinto de verano,” counsels another.

Comfort food and wine spritzers were very much in order when the sun rose over the Rock on 24 June 2016. The joy and relief that greeted the news that 96% of Gibraltar’s voters had cast their ballots in favour of sticking with the EU quickly curdled as referendum night wore on.

“It was apparent as the results came out that things weren’t going to go in the same direction everywhere else,” the deputy chief minister, Dr Joseph Garcia, recalls with a degree of understatement.

“We find ourselves in a position we don’t want to be in: we did not vote for this, we didn’t ask for this, but it’s there,” says Garcia. “We are leaving too and for us it’s now about negotiating the best possible deal for Gibraltar as we exit.”

The territory was not slow out of the traps: by September 2016 it had delivered an economic impact assessment report to the Department for Exiting the EU, and recently it reached a deal with the British government to guarantee access to the UK market for its financial services and online gaming sectors.

© press association A woman crosses the British and Spanish border in Gibraltar

Given that 20% of UK motor insurance is estimated to be sold by Gibraltar companies and 60% of all online gaming bets are taken by firms on the Rock, the agreement has helped ease some of the key Brexit anxieties.

“We knew that was coming but obviously now that it’s crystallised, it’s very reassuring and enables us to tell our clients that this has happened and reassure them that it’s business as usual,” says Christian Hernandez, the president of the Gibraltar chamber of commerce.

Rather less certain is what will happen with the border. The frontier issue has long been almost as emblematic of Gibraltar as its population of Barbary macaques. The crossing was closed on Franco’s orders in 1969 and did not fully reopen until 1985, as Spain prepared to join the European Economic Community.

Hours after the referendum results came in, Spain’s then acting foreign minister, José Manuel García-Margallo, suggested Madrid would take a hard line on exit negotiations by claiming the vote had advanced the prospect of a Spanish flag fluttering over the long-disputed territory.

The contention was emphatically dismissed by Gibraltar’s chief minister. “Gibraltar will never pay a sovereignty price for access to a market,” said Fabian Picardo. “Gibraltar will never be Spanish in whole, in part or at all.”

Margallo has gone, replaced by the more emollient career diplomat Alfonso Dastis, who has ruled out closing the border.

On Wednesday, Dastis said Spain hoped to sign off on a bilateral agreement with Britain over Gibraltar before October so as not to hinder a Brexit transition deal. “We do not want to convert the conversation between the European Union and Britain into a hostage-type situation,” he told Reuters.

But still the worries linger. “Our fear is that once we lose the protection provided by European Union law at the border – we have a right to free movement as EU citizens – Spain might take advantage of the border and be very difficult,” says Garcia.

“We don’t know what degree of frontier fluidity there will be. We want a frictionless border or one that’s as frictionless as possible.”

The Gibraltar government insists that maintaining something like the current status quo would be best for people on both sides of the border. As Garcia points out, about 13,000 people – 8,000 of them Spaniards – cross into Gibraltar to work each day.

What’s more, all of the territory’s construction materials come from Spain, and Gibraltar is the second largest employer in neighbouring Andalucía after the regional government.

Garcia and Picardo have been meeting Spanish politicians, trade unions and chambers of commerce to stress the importance of a smooth border and “a sensible, orderly and well-managed Brexit”.

But, should the current good faith sour and Spain use its veto to exclude Gibraltar from any Brexit deal between the EU and the UK, the government has not ruled out rescinding the rights and protections enjoyed by Spanish and other EU nationals living and working in the territory.

A difficult border and a crackdown on frontier workers would prove disastrous for the Spanish town of La Línea de la Concepción, which grew up on the trade from Gibraltar.

© AP A man on a horse with the Rock and La Línea de la Concepción in the background. The Spanish town has some of the worst unemployment rates in Europe.

Its unemployment rates are some of the worst in Europe, with 70% of young people in some neighbourhoods out of work.

“La Línea is a table with only three legs,” says Juan José Uceda, of the Association of Spanish Workers in Gibraltar. “Two of them are Gibraltar’s economy, with its business and jobs. If they break off, the table will fall.”

The border “has always been a target for the Spanish government’s anger over Gibraltar”, he adds. The worry in La Línea now is that the town could again be devastated as it was when Franco closed the border.

“It would send us back to 1969 and that’s what everyone’s scared of,” he says. “There’s no other work here for anyone, young or old.”

Others are more phlegmatic about the coming months and years. “If you closed the border, there’d be a riot,” says Alex Park, the owner of the Victoria Tavern on Main Street. “Obviously one man could bring Gibraltar to a standstill if they wanted to check every car. But it’s been in OK in recent months.”

Park acknowledges the uncertainty – “what will be will be” – and questions Madrid’s commitment to Andalucía: “It’s always been a thorn in their sides.”

But he is very clear on one particular point: “Sovereignty is not up for negotiation: British we are and British we will stay. That flag will never come down. We’re more British than the British and we’ll survive.”

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