The United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union last June, commonly known as Brexit, shocked not only the world, but also many subjects of the British Crown. The territory which found itself in possibly the trickiest position following the referendum was Gibraltar, one of the remaining 14 British Overseas Territories.
The overwhelming majority of Gibraltarians (96%) voted to stay in the EU, not only for various economic reasons, but also to secure the status of the small peninsula. The neighbouring Kingdom of Spain, which disputes British sovereignty over Gibraltar, reiterated its claims to restore its control over “the Rock,” as the peninsula is colloquially known.
Immediately after the results of the referendum were published, acting Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo proposed to establish a joint control of Spain and the United Kingdom over Gibraltar.
“The Spanish flag on the Rock is much closer than ever before,” he said during an interview with Onda Cero. On the other hand, British Prime Minister Theresa May promised to negotiate the best status possible which is in the interest of the Gibraltarians.
The contemporary disputes are only the newest chapter of an eventful history for Gibraltar. The Rock, named originally by the Arabs as Jebel Tariq after their 8th-century leader, indeed belonged to Spain until 1704, when British troops occupied it during the War of Spanish Succession.
At the end of the conflict, Madrid formally ceded Gibraltar to Britain in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. While Spain repeatedly besieged Gibraltar by military force in vain during the 18th century, the regime of Caudillo Francisco Franco raised a legal dispute over the Rock.
Madrid argued that Gibraltar is still a colony which needs to be decolonised. Spain based this claim on the fact that the original population fled the peninsula after the British conquest, and those living in Gibraltar are in fact British ‘settlers.’
Madrid partially succeeded in the dispute, as the United Nations put Gibraltar on the list of Non-Self-Governing Territories. On the other hand, Gibraltarians refer to the right of self-determination, voicing their desire to uphold the status quo.
They emphasised their opinion by a referendum in 1967, in which only 44 persons out of the 12,237 voted for joining Spain, the rest supported to remain part of Britain.
As a response, the Francoist regime shut down the land border between Spain and Gibraltar in 1969. This was fully reopened only in 1985.
The heated debate over the tiny but strategically important territory entered a new phase in early April this year. On 29 March, Theresa May sent a letter to the European Council initiating the process for Britain to leave the EU.
In response to this, Brussels drafted a document on negotiation guidelines, in which Spain manifested that no agreement between the UK and the EU might apply to Gibraltar without an agreement between London and Madrid.
In other words, the Brexit deal would be valid also for Gibraltar only if Spain agrees to it, thus practically giving a veto right to Madrid over issues regarding the territory.
According to some Gibraltarian sources, the Spanish government could not only successfully lobby in Brussels to include the clause in the Council’s draft document, but could also convince May not to mention Gibraltar in her Brexit letter.
Gibraltarians were outraged on the Spanish move, as the document raised the issue of the status of the peninsula. Even though Gibraltar voted for remain in the Brexit vote, its citizens still regard themselves as Brits. Similarly, British conservative politicians made it clear they would not consider the Rock as a subject of negotiations.
Gibraltar not only has strong historical and symbolic significance for Britain, the Rock also possesses an advantageous economic position, being a VAT-free zone outside the customs unions but inside the single market of the EU.
However, Brexit resulted in a totally new situation. Gibraltarians feared that being part of the UK leaving the EU might bring disastrous consequences for their economy.
Gibraltar attracts a significant number of Spanish workers who commute to the territory through the border daily. Crossing the border with Spain can now last for long hours, much to the annoyance of commuters.
That is the reason why Spanish opinions differ on the Gibraltar issue. While the Rock’s status of a tax haven often triggered Madrid’s accusations of money laundering and smuggling, residents of neighbouring Spanish towns support the status quo. They fear that they would lose their jobs in Gibraltar, which would increase the already high unemployment rate in the region.
A possible solution acceptable for all parties seem difficult to be achieved. The proposal of the status of co-sovereignty over Gibraltar was not invented by García-Margallo on the day after the Brexit referendum.
Peter Hain, who negotiated with Madrid on shared sovereignty over Gibraltar in 2001-2002, asserts that this would be a win-win solution for all parties. However, it seems that Gibraltarians themselves strongly oppose this deal. Their stance was manifested in the 2002 sovereignty referendum held in response to the Anglo-Spanish negotiations. The status of co-sovereignty was rejected by almost 99% of the population of Gibraltar.
Despite the desire of self-determination of the Gibraltarians, some British publicists considered it as a mere piece of land. An opinion piece published in The Guardian proposed to let the Rock simply go to the Spaniards, labelling the issue as a nationalistic row based on an old colonial agreement.
On the other hand, others think that the peninsula is not an imperial relic but the home of a multicultural society which turned against Brexit.
These opinions forget that Gibraltar is the home of more than 30,000 people who possess a unique identity and are determined to decide on their status freely. Although they firmly opposed Brexit, their British identity is indisputable.
Therefore, an independent movement seems unlikely. The ideal solution for the Gibraltarians would be to remain in the United Kingdom, but with a special status regarding trade, immigration and other issues.
Whatever the final status, the settlement should replicate the desire and interests not of the politicians in London, Madrid or Brussels, but of the Gibraltarian people.