The tiny British overseas British territory of Gibraltar, on the edge of the Mediterranean, is worried about the consequences if Britain votes to leave the European Union in the referendum on Thursday.
Speaking on a recent visit to London, the Deputy Chief Minister of Gibraltar, Dr. Joseph Garcia, outlined why the territory wanted the UK to remain in Europe: “We are more European in outlook than most of the UK. People volunteered to change to EU number plates. We also have an EU ID card as a valid document to travel in Europe. We opened an office in Brussels last year and have a Minister for European Affairs.” Gibraltar’s currency is the British pound.
Dr. Garcia conceded that Europe may not be perfect but said it would be better to be part of the Union than outside it. He referred, in particular, to the constant threat to Gibraltar from its neighbor, Spain, with which it shares its northern border. Although Gibraltar is small it is a gateway to the Mediterranean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean. Spain believes Gibraltar was taken in the context of a Spanish dynastic dispute and contests UK sovereignty over the entire peninsula. Gibraltar fears that Spain might feel emboldened to reassert its claim if the United Kingdom leaves the EU.
Under the Gibraltar constitution of 2006, Gibraltar governs its own affairs, though some powers, such as defense and foreign relations, remain the responsibility of the UK government. According to the latest opinion poll in Gibraltar over ninety per cent of its citizens are in favor of remaining in the EU. If the vote is tight supporters of the Remain campaign in the UK can rely on the votes of the people of Gibraltar, all 24,000 plus of them… The Remain campaign in Gibraltar draws support from all political parties, unions, business organizations and social bodies. According to Dr. Garcia there is only a tiny NO campaign in Gibraltar. At a pro-exit rally in Gibraltar at the start of the campaign, only a handful of people turned up and some of them were from the UK!
Because of its location, Gibraltar has historically served as an important base for the British navy especially during the Second World War. Its strategic value increased with the opening of the Suez Canal. Today, Gibraltar’s economy is based largely on tourism, online gambling, financial services, and shipping. It is an important refueling point for cruise ships and other vessels sailing between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean. Its location, history and the landmark Rock of Gibraltar with its resident macaques, have made the territory a popular tourist destination.
While Spain asserts a claim to the territory, Gibraltarians overwhelmingly rejected proposals for Spanish sovereignty in a referendum in 1967 and again in 2002.
Spain responded by completely closing the border and severing all communication links. The border was only fully reopened in 1985 before Spain’s accession to the European community.
Gibraltarians feel safer being part of the EU. The people of Gibraltar complain that Spain makes life difficult if they do anything that the Spanish do not like. Gibraltar’s economy was badly hit by the closure of the border which stopped hundreds of Spanish workers, who make up a large proportion of the labor force, from travelling to the territory. Gibraltar was forced to recruit workers from Morocco to fill the labor gap. Scarred by the repercussions Gibraltarians remain wary of possible moves by Spain to shut the border again.
Gibraltar’s long list of grievances against Spain include a threat to impose a toll on the border. Gibraltar also resents Spanish complaints about its creation of an artificial reef, provision of refueling facilities and land reclamation. The EU Commission dismissed the complaints made by Spain and upheld that there was no breach of EU law.
Dr. Garcia said that if Britain votes to leave the EU, Gibraltar would lose access to European institutions. Because of its small size and population, Gibraltar feels vulnerable without the support of the UK. It was the UK which enabled Gibraltar to participate in European elections. Dr. Garcia said, “Access to European institutions gives us a measure of protection.” Spain’s closure of the border with Gibraltar was blocked by the EU. “Please consider the consequence of Brexit for Gibraltar, ” Dr. Garcia appealed. “If the UK votes to leave the EU, we will lose access overnight and will have to rethink our economic model.”
Dr. Garcia listed the benefits of being part of the EU for Gibraltarians. More than two hundred projects in Gibraltar have been funded by the EU. He said, ” For us Brexit will be a leap in the dark, the UK will be the guinea pig.” According to the Lisbon treaty the UK will have to leave the European Council immediately if the British vote in favor of Brexit. He pointed out that if this happened, the UK would have to renegotiate its relationship with Europe. He believes Spain will take advantage of that negotiation to put pressure on Gibraltar. The stakes are high for the people of Gibraltar. Dr Garcia commented. He concluded, “The people of Gibraltar are very patriotic and see no conflict between being loyal to UK and Europe.”
Remaining in Europe gives Gibraltarians jobs and a stable economy. Dr. Garcia thinks the Remain campaign in UK has not been robust enough in delivering the message that you can be patriotic, love the Queen and be European at the same time. He says a British vote to leave the EU will trigger a crisis which could plunge the UK and Gibraltar into the unknown. It was not worth taking the risk.
The author, Rita Payne, is President Emeritus of the Commonwealth Journalists Association and a journalist and media consultant.