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Gibraltar: A rock between two hard places

"A clash between Britain and Spain, with Gibraltar in the middle, was always coming once the UK opted for Brexit." - Credit: Archant

Unanimously anti-Brexit, unanimously pro-British, Gibraltar must rely on the word of a government without many cards to play.

It was depressing enough on the Rock that the first skirmish after the sending of the Article 50 letter should be over Gibraltar. But what was particularly unhelpful was that it came on the same weekend as the anniversary of Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands.

So it did not take much for some ostensibly ‘serious’ people to start dashing out analogies between the two, and raise the prospect of a military clash between Britain and Spain at the gates of the Mediterranean.

While the drum beats of war seem to have dampened down a little, the real concerns that lay behind them have not. Indeed, the extraordinary escalation in rhetoric which followed the news that the EU were going to hand Spain a potential veto over Gibraltar’s future in the forthcoming Brexit talks, shows just how seriously the threat is being taken.

The hyperbolic reaction has, at least, left no doubt whatsoever about the strength of conviction there is in the UK for protecting Gibraltar’s status. In this rather crass way, then, it did perhaps serve its purpose.

Indeed, there is already some talk that Spain may have slightly overplayed its hand, rather early in the game. No doubt Madrid was, at first, rubbing its hand with glee at the news its veto over Gibraltar’s future had been written into the EU’s list of Brexit negotiating demands.

But it was soon leading the calls for calm. The Spanish Foreign Minister, Alfonso Dastis, expressed surprise at the tone of comments coming out of Britain which, he pointed out, is a country noted around the world for its composure. ‘I think some people in the UK are losing their temper but there’s no need for that,’ he said.

Tempers are now a little bit more in check, but the tensions remain. In truth, such a clash between Britain and Spain, with Gibraltar in the middle, was always coming, once the UK opted for Brexit. It is the main reason why Gibraltarians voted almost unanimously against it, by 96%.

It means the Rock is facing Brexit in a quite uniquely invidious way. While there are other areas, like Scotland and Northern Ireland, being taken out of the EU against their will, only the Rock has the added irony that it is also now being singled out and threatened with hostile treatment from the other side of the negotiating table – by the EU itself. We are a Rock between two hard places.

But at least last weekend’s furore reminded us we do have allies. It was taken as an encouraging sign of the strength of feeling about Gibraltar, among a cross-section of Westminster MPs. We clearly have many friends in the British Parliament who understand our unease at being forced to leave the EU. That Spain, and indeed the EU itself, are reminded of that is not a bad thing.

Because it gets to the heart of another difference between Gibraltar and those other Remain areas, Scotland and Northern Ireland. There seems to be a growing sense in both those places – particularly the former – that if it’s current position in the UK cannot also accommodate EU membership, perhaps it should rethink that position. In Gibraltar, there is no such desire to re-examine our relationship with Britain.

We were near unanimous about Brexit, and we are proud Europeans. But we are also proudly British and wish to remain so. A referendum on proposed shared sovereignty with Spain in 2002 produced an ever bigger majority against the idea than the pro-Remain vote last year: 99%.

Spain might now spy an opportunity to press the case for shared sovereignty again, with the lure of allowing Gibraltarians to maintain some of the benefits of EU membership. But such a strategy misjudges the mood on the Rock. There is little indication that any but a handful of the 30,000 population being prepared to weaken their relationship with Britain, despite the blow of Brexit.

Such a sentiment was clear from the united reaction of Gibraltar’s political class to the EU’s opening gambit and subsequent reaction. You’ll find no censorious talk chastising high profile Britons for their sabre rattling, and little criticism of London for its handling of the issue. The culprit was European Council president Donald Tusk, for allowing Gibraltar’s inclusion in the draft EU guidelines.

Chief Minister Fabian Picardo said: ‘Mr Tusk, who has been given to using the analogies of the divorce and divorce petition, is behaving like a cuckolded husband who is taking it out on the children… We voted to stay in the EU so taking it out on us is to allow Spain to behave in the manner of the bully.’

His calls for the Rock to be removed from the negotiating guidelines have been echoed by the main opposition party the Gibraltar Social Democrats.

None of this is to say, of course, that there is not still great unease about Brexit. Gibraltar’s relationship with the EU is already distinct – lying, as it does, outside the customs union, with the ability to set and lower taxes on its imports and exports.

This has been crucial to developing the territory’s economy, with the blend of low-taxes and access to the single market an obvious lure for gambling, insurance and financial firms. As a result, Gibraltar is one of the world’s richest places, per capita – and an obvious source of frustration for Spain, where the southern economy is stagnant and unemployment high. In Gibraltar there is essentially no unemployment. The official figure is 1%. Over the border in the Spanish town of La Linea it is 35%.

Mutual EU membership has, without doubt, helped smooth tensions with Spain. Now, as it has already shown, the EU will take Spain’s side. And at stake is not just border problems – where Spain is wont to up the ante by increasing checks, allowing eight hour queues to build up – but the Gibraltarian way of life and the territory’s business model.

All that said, Madrid is on shaky ground when trying to unpick the constitutional arrangements of other European states. It is beset by its own separatist tensions, and its possession of Ceuta, a north African enclave on the other side of the Strait of Gibraltar opens it to charges of hypocrisy. In addition, a fluid border is as essential to Gibraltar’s long-term prosperity as it is to that of Andalusia, the neighbouring region of Spain. Before last weekend, there were hopes – if not expectations – of a degree of goodwill from Spain. These were encouraged by signs that Madrid recognised the ‘common interests’ it shares with the UK and that it would ‘in principle’ favour an agreement that would allow Britons living in Spain and other parts of the EU to retain their existing rights. The language on all sides had, until last weekend, been relatively conciliatory.

By raising Gibraltar early, the EU and Madrid may find they have played one of their strongest cards too soon. Clearly there is no sign of a resolution, but at least we know what to expect. We know the game.

So the overwhelming sense on the Rock is that we must just prepare, if not for war (!), then for a period of prolonged uncertainty and tension. We have had them before. While we’ve found recently that historical analogies and precedents can be a bit overplayed, it is worth saying Gibraltar has withstood various sieges in the past. The Gibraltarians are a resolute and determined people – as one of our number, Paul Cartwright, recently showed, as one of the campaigners who, with Gina Miller, successfully challenged the government’s initial Brexit strategy through the courts.

What we need now is for Britain to take a tough line is on the subject of future trade deals. A commitment providing for Gibraltar’s inclusion in any future trade deal between the UK and the EU would be most welcome at this juncture and is in the gift of the British government.

Ultimately, it will come down to trust. Theresa May has said the UK remains ‘absolutely steadfast’ in its support for Gibraltar and the ‘double lock’ commitment that it will never change or discuss Gibraltar’s sovereignty against the wishes of the Gibraltarians. On this, we will have to trust the London government – which, itself does not seem to have too many cards to play – to be as steadfast as it claims.

In the UK, trust in politicians seems to be at a particularly low ebb – in part a consequence of the toxic referendum campaign. But this is where we are.

Cristina Cavilla is the chief reporter at the Gibraltar Chronicle

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