Gibraltar Faces Uncertain Future as Clock Ticks Down on Brexit

Negotiations between London and Brussels continue as the status of Gibraltar – the British-held territory off Spain’s southern coast – remains one of many Brexit items pending resolution

Earlier this week, representatives from both the UK and Gibraltar attended a final meeting in London to discuss future negotiations after Britain’s exit from the EU. But as January 31st quickly approaches, many Spanish citizens living and working in Gibraltar are concerned over how the decisions made by the two entities – post-transition – could affect trade and livelihoods.

Prior to this, on January 14th-15th, a delegation from the UK met with their Spanish counterparts in Madrid to set a timetable and agenda for meetings on the technical status of Gibraltar post-Brexit. The agenda is based on the 2018 memorandum of understanding between the two countries, which agreed to tackle important issues such as environmental protection, smuggling, and law enforcement cooperation. The UK delegation for these talks included representatives from the Gibraltarian government, while the Spanish side was made up of regional and local officials from Andalusia.

Another separate committee will be managed by the European Commission and will primarily focus on safeguarding the rights of EU workers in the territory – one of the issues foremost on the minds of the Gibraltar administration. “The priority of the government of Gibraltar is to ensure that our departure from the EU does not negatively affect the lives of citizens who cross the border in either direction. By working together, we can ensure smooth border flows for all interested parties”, said Chief Minister Fabian Picardo.

Brexit’s History in Gibraltar

Similar to citizens in Scotland and Northern Ireland, a majority of Gibraltarians voted to stay within the European Union during the 2016 Brexit vote, but at a much higher margin of approximately 96 percent.

While much of the topic of discussion on an UK exit deal was long focused on the thorny matter of the Northern Ireland border, the Gibraltar issue is similarly delicate – though thankfully not mired in the history of violence which beset Northern Ireland. The mechanics of managing the Rock’s status and relationship with the EU are, however, difficult.

The territory serves as an important strategic, economic, and military possession for Britain. Yet in Spain, uncertainty over Gibraltar’s future has caused some parties – particularly those belonging to the far-right Vox movement and conservative Partido Popular – to call for its return to Spanish control. Vox’s description of the territory as a “leech” and “den of money launderers”, led the government of Gibraltar to file a criminal complaint in December 2019 against four Vox members for “inciting hatred against the people of Gibraltar”, according to Picardo.

British ownership of Gibraltar, which was ceded by Spain in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, has long been an emotive issue for Spaniards, and the practicalities have exceeded any notions of nationalism. Nearly 15,000 Spanish citizens cross into Gibraltar every day to work, primarily in the territory’s booming finance, gaming and gambling industries. While negotiations between Spain and the UK over Gibraltar will centre on maximising the enclave’s potential, there remains a lingering desire amongst Spanish politicians for Brexit to represent a re-examination of the status of Gibraltar. Some believe that the UK’s departure from the EU represents a rare opportunity to re-assert Spanish dominion over Gibraltar; Spanish MEP Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo has called it a “historic” moment.

Speaking at an event in the city of Zaragoza, the former acting Minister for Foreign Affairs Margarita Robles said “we have to immediately negotiate the Gibraltar issue, if we miss this historical moment, the likes of which we have not seen since 1713, we will miss a golden opportunity”.

While the concept of the UK losing possession of the territory is virtually inconceivable, the nature of the territory’s status post-Brexit is still very much up for discussion. It is clear the UK will be eager to maintain its strategic and economic interests, while in Spain, the necessity of the Rock’s economy to one of the country’s poorest regions is likely to offset more nationalist sentiments.

The UK will be leaving the European Union on January 31 nearly four years after the 2016 Brexit vote. There are still negotiations to be made, however, including over the status of Gibraltar. Earlier this month, an agenda for meetings was established based on the 2018 memorandum of understanding between the two countries, which agreed to tackle issues such as environmental protection, smuggling, and law enforcement cooperation. Copyright: Frederic Legrand – COMEO /

Gibraltar Eyes Schengen

Prior to the start of Brexit, Gibraltar’s government considered entering Schengen, which would allow EU citizens to move freely across the internal borders of all member states. Britain is one of six member nations that is not a part of the agreement, but Picardo believes it would be a “positive step” should the territory succeed in negotiating free access and passage. “Does it make sense for the EU that 6.2 square kilometres at the southernmost tip of Iberia should not be accessible to EU citizens? I don’t think it does”, he stated.

“If you look at other microstates in Europe, they take the benefit of common travel areas with Schengen, even if they’re not part of the Schengen information system. All of these things will be considered in the context of the negotiations going forward”, the chief said.

The UK, however, maintains that any arrangements regarding Gibraltar and Schengen will be determined following future EU-UK negotiation talks. “After we leave, the UK will be negotiating the future relationship with the EU on behalf of the whole UK family, including Gibraltar”, said a spokesperson for Britain, adding that “…the UK and Gibraltar Governments have always supported arrangements at the border with Spain, which promote fluidity and shared prosperity in the region”.

While Brexit will officially come into effect at midnight on Friday, January 31st, no immediate effects will come about until the end of the 11-month transitional period. Nonetheless, February 1st starts the countdown clock on crucial negotiations that will take place between government officials from the UK, EU, Spain and Gibraltar to ascertain the future of the British enclave, and the effects this will have on citizens.

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Ruairi Kavanagh

Ruairi is an Irish writer, editor and author with 25 years of experience across national and specialist media. He specialises in reporting on matters relating to education, development,emergency services, international affairs, defence and security with particular interest in European affairs, the Balkan region, the Middle East and Africa.

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