The threat from Spain that hangs over Gibraltar from Brexit

Nowhere is support for British membership of the EU more rock-solid than in Gibraltar, the overseas territory perched at the southern tip of Spain. While the latest polls in the UK show that the vote in a referendum if held today would be 52% in favour of staying in the EU against 43% for leaving, according to the ORB survey for the Telegraph newspaper, the stay-in vote in Gibraltar has a massive 88% support, according to a poll published by the Gibraltar Chronicle.

The 23,000 Gibraltarians eligible to vote will turn out en masse at the referendum on 23 June mainly because if Brexit happens Madrid would feel more emboldened to pursue its sovereignty claim over the Rock, which it regards as a colonial relic, even more vigorously.

The territory was ceded to the British crown under the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht. One of Madrid’s weapons could be to close the border again as it was between 1969 by the Franco regime and 1982 when it was re-opened by the Socialist government after the dictator died as part of Madrid’s efforts to join the EU.

With the UK out of the EU, the border would become an external and not an internal EU frontier, which has to be kept open under EU rules. As such, Spain could close it and a legal challenge by the UK/Gibraltar would be more difficult.

EU membership has been positive for Gibraltar. Not only has it provided a framework of treaties and laws that give the territory a degree of security, stability and safety, but the Rock’s economy, based on financial services, gambling and tourism (much of it from Spain’s Costa del Sol), has boomed. Some 23,000 visitors and 7,000 workers (mainly Spaniards from Andalusia, one of the country’s most depressed regions) cross the border daily. There is full employment, in contrast with Spain’s jobless rate of more than 20%, and housing has become so expensive on the densely populated territory that living in Spain has become an increasingly attractive option. For international investors, Gibraltar sells itself as a ‘gateway to Europe’.

Gibraltar has been suffering the impact of a tougher approach by Madrid since July 2013 when stringent border controls, turned on and off like a tap, were imposed after the Gibraltar government enraged the conservative Popular Party government by tossing 70 concrete blocks into contested waters in order to encourage sea-life to flourish. The controls were ostensibly a crackdown on tobacco smuggling, as prices are much lower in Gibraltar. On a bad day, it can take cars several hours to cross the border. This situation evokes bitter memories of the border closure.

European-Commission intervention has protected Gibraltar from making the border situation worse. For example, the Commission declared that a border toll would be illegal when Spain said publicly in 2013 this was something they were looking into.

In another move highlighting the heightened tensions, Madrid closed in February 2015 the branch in Gibraltar of the Cervantes Institute culture and language centre. José Manuel García-Margallo, Spain’s caretaker Foreign Minister, following last December’s inconclusive election and the failure to form a new one since then, said the previous Socialist government’s decision to open the Institute ‘in what is considered Spanish territory’ was ‘absurd’ as ‘everyone speaks Spanish except for the apes’.

No one knows exactly how Spain would respond to Brexit as regards the Gibraltar issue. This depends to some extent on the shape of Spain’s next government, which looks as if it might not be formed until after new elections are held, probably on 26 June –for the second time in six months, as a result of December’s inconclusive election–, and on whether the Popular Party remains at the helm in one way or another.

All the signs still point to a coalition government, either with or without the PP, as opposed to a government with an absolute majority like the last PP administration. Either way this could mean a softer policy towards the Rock as it would not be dictated solely by the PP, which has taken the more hard-line stance.

The PP withdrew from the Trilateral Forum for Dialogue (the UK, Spain and Gibraltar), set up under the Socialist government in 2004, as soon as it won the 2011 election. That forum respected Gibraltar’s position as a valid interlocutor. The PP wants a return to bilateral UK-Spain talks. Consequently, there has been no active mechanism since then for discussing common issues other than sovereignty and little more than megaphone diplomacy. Efforts to start ad hoc talks since 2013 have come to nothing. The Socialists have intimated they might reinstate the Forum if they were back in government though it would probably look different.

García-Margallo has publicly said the only way for Gibraltar to retain access to the EU single market in the event of Brexit would be to accept ‘co-sovereignty’, or joint control by Spain and the UK. This would mean flying the Spanish flag on the Rock and dusting off the failed Blair-Aznar joint sovereignty plan, which Gibraltarians overwhelmingly rejected in a referendum in 2002 (by 98.5% of the votes cast).

In the event of Brexit, an option for Gibraltar, like that for Scotland, could be independence, but this is not on the agenda of any political party or movement in the territory. The Treaty of Utrecht, furthermore, has a clause which Madrid could interpret as giving it a prior right to claim back Gibraltar should the territory push for independence, a notion not recognised by London.

This clause states: ‘And in case it shall hereafter seem meet to the Crown of Great Britain to grant, sell or by any means to alienate therefrom the propriety of the said town of Gibraltar, it is hereby agreed and concluded that the preference of having the sale shall always be given to the Crown of Spain before any others’. But independence could come in the form of a parliamentary monarchy with the Head of State being the Queen of Great Britain, as the ‘Crown of Great Britain’ would not itself be alienating ‘the propriety of the said town of Gibraltar’.

The Rock’s future would appear to be inextricably entwined with that of Britain; it believes it can fend off Spain better with it than on its own. Gibraltar is hoping that just as it has always been there for Britain from the early 1700s, from providing the platform for Nelson’s triumphs to the World Wars, the Cold War and the Falklands War, so Britain will continue to stand by it.