It’s a small part of Britain in Europe that has been British longer than the United States has been in existence. But these are troubling times for the people of Gibraltar, located on the southern end of the Spanish coastline close to North Africa.
It may be regarded by some as an anachronism, a leftover from the days of the British Empire, but it’s also home to over 30,000 people who are exceedingly patriotic about the British flag and their own identity.
Gibraltar’s value historically, has always been strategic, located where the Mediterranean Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean. Which is why a combined British and Dutch fleet fought so hard to wrest it from Spanish control in 1704. It has remained British and coveted by Spain since that day. Suddenly Madrid has grabbed an opportunity offered by Brexit, to exact some control.
This is nothing new to Gibraltar. Some 12,000 people cross the land frontier from Spain to Gibraltar each day to work, and over 7000 of them are Spanish nationals. But that hasn’t stopped Spain from occasionally slowing the border crossings to a near halt, causing delays of up to eight hours at a time, the last time in 2013.
The vote for Brexit by Britain has shocked the Gibraltarians who voted overwhelmingly to stay in the union.
There is a vague sense of betrayal in the air. That Britain as a whole ignored them in favour of leaving. Suddenly their protection from Spain, under EU law, is about to disappear.
I spoke to the Deputy Chief minister just before Britain triggered Article 50 to begin the process to leave the EU. We met at his offices in an old restored military guardroom in the centre of town. Sitting in front of the Gibraltar and EU flags, Dr. Joseph Garcia assured me that Gibraltar was at the heart of British thinking.
“Whatever agreement the UK decides to negotiate going forward in determining it’s future relationship with the EU it’s important for us that the border is fully safeguarded in those arrangements.”
He spoke of high-level talks from the British Prime Minister down, of cooperation and understanding with regards to Britain striking a deal to leave the EU, that all was well. I pressed him, suggesting there was nothing concrete, no real, tangible support for Gibraltar from the government in London. He disagreed.
“We have seen nothing to suggest that the UK is going to do anything other than honour the commitments to the people of Gibraltar”.
Whether he knew something or was putting a positive gloss on the situation is hard to say. A few days after this conversation, a political bombshell arrived.
News emerged from the EU that seemed to indicate that Spain would have a veto on Gibraltar’s future, that it would not be included as part of Britain’s negotiations to leave the EU.
It’s put the cat amongst the pigeons, to put it mildly. With the government of Theresa May scrambling to reiterate it’s support for the Rock verbally, while Gibraltar’s Chief Minister, Fabian Picardo embarked on a media blitz in the UK to put the case forward for his people.
A sharp political operator, he knows full well that Gibraltar, like another British overseas territory, the Falkland Islands, is an emotive name in the right wing areas of the British press.
Newspapers like the Daily Mail, the Express and the Sun have all rallied to the cause. With the Sun newspaper going as far as to produce a crass front-page that read "Up your Señors".
There is irony in the fact that those who drove the campaign for Britain to leave the EU, who hark back to a supposedly golden, colonial past, may have threatened one of the last remaining symbols of the British empire.
This is a story close to home. I was brought up in Gibraltar and didn’t leave until my early twenties. Old Gibraltarian family friends used to joke, “Britain will sell us down the river one day”. These days they are not joking, there is no real idea what the future holds.
We lived for many years throughout a Spanish blockade. General Franco of Spain closed the land frontier in 1969, at a stroke putting out of work many Spaniards who worked in what was then a British colony. We couldn’t leave unless by sea to Morocco or by air to Britain. There were not even phone links in those days. Families were cruelly divided across the frontier, stranded on each side of tall fences some 100 yards apart. New babies would be held in the air, while relations shouted across to each other.
The frontier didn’t open until, ironically, Spain joined the EU in the 1980s.
If the Franco aim was to reduce Gibraltar, to kill morale and force it’s return, he could not have been more wrong. It brought everyone together and helped cement and nurture the essential Gibraltarian character.
The people, known as Llanitos, are a diverse mix of many cultures. British, Andalucian, Sephardic Jewish, Genoese, Maltese and Catalan to name a few. They flip between Spanish and English often mid-sentence, while using their own words.
The main religion was Catholic, but the cathedral had been a mosque centuries before. While I was growing up, the Chief minister and local Mayor were Jewish, traders on the main street were Indian, and the labour force was Moroccan. It was, in those days, a military dockyard, where we watched the aircraft carriers, destroyers and frigates call in before heading to Britain’s last colonial war in the Falkland Islands in 1982. Some didn’t return.
Behind a closed border in an area of barely 7 square kilometres, I grew up in a multi-cultural environment, with a thriving cultural, political and sporting scene. We may not have had too much in the way of fresh fruit or milk during the closed frontier years, but there were ample compensations. It was warm, safe, happy and we knew each other.
Despite the eccentric talk a few days ago of Lord Howard, the former Conservative leader in Britain, who unhelpfully mentioned the Falklands war while speaking of Gibraltar, the current impasse is unlikely to lead to conflict.
Cooler heads have already prevailed. Including the Spanish foreign minister Alfonso Dastis, a career diplomat who is from Jerez, just up the road. He’s already expressed his surprise at the aggressive rhetoric in Britain. But the current row may lead to severe difficulties.
For the last three decades, Gibraltar has been booming, with a thriving financial market as well as hosting offshore betting and gaming companies. It provides work and income to an area of southern Spain that has been economically depressed for decades. A lot of it based on access to a single European market, although the Gibraltar government says most of this is through the United Kingdom. That Britain leaving the EU won’t affect their growth. Time will tell.
Gibraltar however, is somewhat defenceless. It can’t avoid being caught up in the negotiations between Britain, Spain and the European Union and risks being a bargaining chip in the drawn out Brexit process. Does Britain care more about relations with Spain, (with its hundreds of thousands of UK nationals living there), than it does about a territory it has owned for over 300 years?
Relations have always been tense between two NATO members when it comes to the Rock, while connections between Gibraltar and Spain have been marked by an understandable historical distrust. One that may increase over the coming years.
Then again, people in Gibraltar have a keen sense of history.
As we learned in school there, it has more or less been that way since 1704.