GIBRALTAR — All Antonio Molina has to do to cross the border into Gibraltar for work is wave an identity card, barely slowing his motorbike’s pace.
The Spanish delivery man’s job depends on the border being open, a fact that’s under threat as Britain leaves the European Union, dragging the overseas territory with it. Molina’s livelihood, like that of some 300,000 people who work in the region, is on the line.
“There is much fear because we don’t know what’s going to happen,” says the 46 year-old father of two, a Spanish citizen and resident who is applying for his first passport ever in case border controls become stricter. “We live in limbo; you hear one thing today and a different thing tomorrow.”
Britain has controlled the rocky speck of land for three centuries against Spain’s wishes. But being in the EU has meant the border has been open to the unlimited flow of workers, goods and money. That could end if Britain leaves the EU without retaining access to the bloc’s single market. And Spain could use the situation to press for greater control of the territory.
Gibraltar, which is barely twice the size of Central Park and home to 32,000 people, has thrived economically under Britain’s rule and open trade with Spain. Its low corporate taxes, business-friendly regulation and links to the EU market since 1973 have attracted investment. Tourists can often be seen taking selfies with the Barbary macaques, the only free-roaming monkeys in Europe, that live on the promontory known as The Rock. They can pay with pounds or euros.
With the prospect of losing easy access to Spain and the wider EU market, Gibraltar’s government says the territory is rebranding itself as a gateway for the U.K. and new markets in northern Africa just across the strait.
“It’s unfortunate. We don’t want to turn our backs to Europe, but those are the cards that we have been dealt and we have to play this hand the best as possible,” Fabian Picardo, the chief minister of Gibraltar, told The Associated Press.
It doesn’t matter that 96 per cent of Gibraltarians voted to remain in the EU in last year’s referendum. Since then, pleas for a special deal that would allow Gibraltar to retain access to the EU single market and keep borders open have been blocked by Spain, which wants joint sovereignty of the territory.
Madrid’s proposal is to share foreign and defence matters with London, which keeps a strategic military presence in Gibraltar, in return for ample autonomy, investments and special tax conditions. Gibraltarians would be allowed to have a Spanish passport without having to renounce their British one.
Acknowledging such an agreement with Britain is unlikely, Spain is taking a tough line. Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis recently said that Madrid’s position remains that Britain’s control of Gibraltar “violates the territorial integrity of our country.”
In its divorce talks with the EU, Britain’s focus on controlling borders and limiting migration means it is unlikely to retain access to the bloc’s single market, as the EU has said the country cannot have it both ways. That has left many in Gibraltar wondering whether their fate will be considered in Britain’s negotiations with the EU.
Picardo argues it is possible to limit migration somewhat while keeping borders open to workers and tourists to Gibraltar. It’s an arrangement he believes could also work for Britain’s land border with Ireland, for example.
Nobody expects Gibraltar’s border to be fully closed. But disruptions and queues — which already happen at times of diplomatic tensions between Britain and Spain — are a nightmare for workers and employers.
Molina’s boss, Redwood International general manager Danny Gabay, says his logistics business is already affected by increased border checks at customs. “Gibraltar is paying a price due to political situations, and obviously our businesses are in the front line,” he says.
Gabay’s office is in an airport terminal building that stops abruptly over the frontier fence, a powerful symbol of the lack of co-operation at the official level. The Spanish side never built a terminal on its side because Madrid considers the airstrip built on illegally occupied land.
That leaves the airport servicing flights linking only with destinations in Britain. And Spain has threatened to block the airport from getting EU air travel permits once Brexit happens.
European mediation has been key to solving past British-Spanish disputes over Gibraltar. But now, workers here feel like they’ll be an afterthought in Britain’s two-year negotiations with the EU.
Jesus Verdu, an international public law professor at the University of Cadiz, believes Gibraltar overall is well positioned to navigate uncharted waters. The biggest losers if Spain takes a hard line, he says, will be workers like Molina and others in the region around Gibraltar, where unemployment remains high and 25 per cent of economic output is linked to jobs in Gibraltar or spending by Gibraltarians.
“There are so many things at stake that are essential both for the U.K. and for the EU that the issue of Gibraltar is being diluted and pushed right to the margins, and that is obviously a source of great concern for our region,” Verdu says.