SPAIN, GIBRALTAR & BREXIT Rock out – A territory is dragged from Europe against its will. Spain looms
Jul 16th 2016 Economist
Red post boxes and phone booths line the streets. Musket-bearing re-enactors march past helmeted policemen. The pubs serve pie and chips even in 25-degree heat. It seems like a Brexiteer’s paradise. Yet while 17m Britons were voting to leave the European Union on June 23rd, Gibraltar — a tiny British Overseas Territory dangling from the southern coast of Spain — voted by 19,322 to 823 to stay. Their votes “did not even move the needle”, Gibraltar’s chief minister, Fabian Picardo, told a crestfallen public the following day. The peninsula now faces an uncertain future outside the EU, which has helped underwrite decades of prosperity and kept the all-important border open. Spain has periodically pressed its claim to Gibraltar (and laid siege to it twice) since ceding it to Britain in 1713.
For now, the EU flag still flutters alongside the Union Jack above the government building. Inside, Mr Picardo is confident that his government can deliver the 8.25% annual growth promised in its pre-election manifesto in November, which had supposedly priced in the risk of Brexit. But many worry that Spain could close the border again, as it did between 1969 and 1985. Within hours of the result, the Spanish foreign minister, José García-Margallo, crowed: “The Spanish flag is now much closer to the Rock.”
Gibraltar’s booming economy (growth came in at 10.6% last year) relies on the thousands of Spanish workers who cross the border every day. Christian Hernandez, president of the chamber of commerce, says the peninsula’s thriving financial-services sector is at risk, too: “The whole way we’ve marketed the jurisdiction is as a gateway into Europe.”
Some industries will prove immune. Roughly 90% of Gibraltar’s insurance and online-betting business consists of transactions with Britain, Mr Picardo reckons. Low tax rates will help keep firms in place. “We don’t see Gibraltar plc collapsing,” says John Westwood, managing director of Blacktower, a financial-services company based in the territory. And Mr Picardo gives short shrift to Mr Garcia-Margallo’s threats over sovereignty: “Another day, another stupid remark.” The British Foreign Office insists it will not even discuss the issue.
Moreover, self-interest is likely to mute Spanish sabre-rattling. Gibraltar provides 25% of the economy of the neighbouring Spanish area of Campo de Gibraltar; the region of Andalusia as a whole suffers 32% unemployment. “Our economy is completely dependent on Gibraltar,” says Juan Franco, mayor of the border town of La Línea de la Concepción. Thirty-year-old Tamara Gómez commutes daily from La Línea to her waitressing job, and has never been able to find a job in Spain: “The only money I’ve ever earned is in Gibraltar.”
Some even think the future will be brighter. A Shell-operated liquid natural gas terminal will come online by mid-2017. A new secure data facility is housed deep within the Rock. The government hopes to forge tighter links with Morocco and Africa beyond. Tarik El-Yabani, one of the few local Leave activists, thinks that Gibraltar could position itself as “the Hong Kong of Europe”.
Nevertheless, many are hoping that Gibraltar will somehow avoid Brexit. Mr Picardo is conferring with his counterparts in Scotland about how to remain within the EU, and has called for a second referendum to be held once the details of Britain’s prospective relationship with Brussels are hashed out. Whatever the result, Gibraltar’s politicians and people have displayed remarkable unity, both in their stance during the referendum and in their efforts to cope with the consequences. In this, red phone booths or no, Gibraltar looks very little like Britain.