Gibraltar braces itself for Brexit damage as the divorce approaches

Residents and workers from “The Rock” are facing the possible consequences should the United Kingdom crash out of the European Union on October 31 with concern

Jesús A. Cañas
The bus that goes from the Spanish border to the center of Gibraltar.
The bus that goes from the Spanish border to the center of Gibraltar.Marcos Moreno

When a Gibraltarian is queried on the tricky question of sovereignty, the answer is usually prompt and precise: “We are British, not English.”

Since June 2016, when the so-called “Brexit” referendum took place to decide whether or not the United Kingdom would remain in the European Union (EU), they tend to add that most residents of “The Rock” voted to remain, although this does not seem to matter in the face of what looks increasingly like a no-deal Brexit.

London and Brussels are playing a poker game, and gambling with people’s lives is not what the voters elected me to do

Fabian Picardo, Chief Minister of Gibraltar

Gibraltar is confronting the scenario with more concern than assurance, and more resignation than eagerness, but it does want to feel as though it has at least tried to prepare.

“London and Brussels are playing a poker game, and gambling with people’s lives is not what the voters elected me to do,” says Fabian Picardo, Chief Minister of Gibraltar, as he sits on a sofa beside an EU flag that will soon be lowered at his Convent Place office. Neither he nor his neighbors in the British Overseas Territory, located on the southern coast of Spain, have any idea of what kind of hand they are about to be dealt, though it is fairly obvious that a no-deal Brexit will affect people and vehicles crossing the border as well as supplies for companies and conditions for employees who cross over for work.

According to John Isola, head of Anglo-Hispano, a company of 300 employees importing alcoholic drinks and supplies for the catering industry, with so many question marks, it is impossible not to be concerned. “Our border is outside the Schengen Area and the European Customs Union. Nothing should change on October 31, but, as we know, this border is used to cause trouble, when it suits” he says with skepticism.

Fabian Picardo, Chief Minister of Gibraltar, in a 2007 file photo.
Fabian Picardo, Chief Minister of Gibraltar, in a 2007 file photo.MARCOS MORENO

Isola is worried about importing perishable goods once Britain leaves. Gibraltar has no border inspection post, the nearest being at the port of Algeciras – general goodwill currently means that trucks carrying perishables don’t have to go that extra mile and pass through there. Isola is also worried that a hard Brexit could have a negative impact on tourism. “It would affect what we buy, what we sell and the employment that we generate,” he says.

At the end of the day, most of the headaches will revolve around the border of Gibraltar, a place that would have the third-biggest income per capita in the world, were it a country. Each day, an average of 28,500 people cross from one side to the other.

As we know, this border is used to cause trouble, when it suits

John Isola, head of company Anglo-Hispano

On a number of occasions, this same border has been behind political tensions with Spain. October 31, the day that Brexit is due to happen – with or without a deal, according to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson – is causing Loren Periáñez, president of the Cross Frontier Group and a businessman based in La Línea de la Concepción, more than a few sleepless nights as he considers the implications for the 15,000 employees making the daily journey to the other side. More than 9,000 of them are Spanish, according to estimates by Gibraltar’s authorities.

“La Línea will then be the EU’s external border and if there is a check on documentation for all the vehicles that leave, we could have hour-long delays,” says Periáñez.

Numerous concerns reach his inbox every day from people who are worried whether they will keep the unemployment benefit they currently have a right to in Spain or if they will be expected to have a visa to cross the border to work. Exacerbating the situation is the value of the pound against the euro, which has meant a 25% drop in wages in real terms for Spaniards working in Gibraltar.

Many of the current concerns were sorted out in the 2018 agreement between Spain and the UK, but in the event of a no-deal, this agreement would no longer be valid, according to the Gibraltar authorities. They have also been addressed by Spanish legislation designed to cover a possible no-deal scenario. Meanwhile, the Gibraltar authorities have their own contingency plans with legislation that covers all the citizens’ rights acquired during the years as part of the EU.

A willingness to understand

At the end of the day, Picardo is not denying that there will be huge appetite for cooperation between Spain and Gibraltar in a post-Brexit era. “These are issues that have more to do with attitudes and human relations. We are in favor of a legal framework, but while this is happening, as the time frame is tight, we are trying to think that the positive spirit will pervade on October 31,” he says, while warning against the alternative: “If we want to create a big problem, this is the perfect opportunity. If we want to work in good faith, we know what we need to do.”

Last June, Gibraltar and La Línea observed the 50th anniversary of the unexpected 1968 border closure – a measure taken by the regime of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco that split families in two and impoverished the area. The Gibraltarians still have an element of the stoicism that was forged over the ensuing 13 years of isolation. As the jeweler Antonio Martínez says as he sits on a bench in Main Street: “Franco has gone. There is common sense on both sides.”

In two months, he will be proven right – or wrong. Picardo, for one, is not willing to say which way the situation will swing. “Nobody knows what the consequences of the coming days will be,” he says, adding, “I think they are going to be vertiginous.”

 English version by Heather Galloway.

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