8th May 1954: A boy chatting to a local fisherman repairing his fishing lines at Catalan Bay, a small village on the eastern side of the Rock of Gibraltar. (Photo by Bert Hardy/Picture Post/Getty Images)
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Bordering on Britishness: what does it really mean to be Gibraltarian?

The public’s understanding of Gibraltar’s people often fails to account for the nuances of history and cultural diversity, says Professor Andrew Canessa, the academic behind the “Bordering on Britishness” project. He explains why this ambitious new oral history fills a much needed gap, and some of the surprises they’ve already uncovered.

Gibraltarians regularly appear in the British media as arch Royalists festooned with the Union Jack and declaring themselves to be “more British than the British.”  There is no doubt that Gibraltarians can be relied upon to come out in great numbers to celebrate their British identity and loyalty – especially when there are problems on the border with Spain.  But what does it mean to be Gibraltarian and how did an overwhelmingly Spanish-speaking population with intimate connections with Spanish people and culture come, over the span of a single lifetime, to identify so resolutely against any identification with Spain?  What does it mean to be more British than the British?  

There have been numerous studies on this question but the approach has largely been historical -- based on colonial archives and predominantly English sources with some small social science surveys, almost always conducted exclusively in English and with a limited set of questions.  All of these studies confirm that the Gibraltarian identity developed over time from Genoese, Maltese, Spanish and other populations, but especially during the twentieth century, through the trauma of the enforced WWII evacuation of women, children and elderly, which ultimately led to the creation of a modern British Gibraltarian.  But is that all there is to it?

To date, no one has conducted a survey of Gibraltarians in the language of their choice, including the local dialect of llanito.  “Bordering on Britishness”, an Economic and Social Research Council funded collaboration between the University of Essex (where I teach) and the Gibraltar Garrison Library (Dr. Jennifer Ballantine Perera), therefore fills a much needed gap. We will talk to over 400 Gibraltarians in a series of interviews, lasting several hours in total for each participant.  The researchers are locally recruited, able to conduct themselves in llanito, and come from a wide range of backgrounds: unionists and company managers, Hindus, Jews, Muslims and Christians, older and younger, male and female and so on.  One part of the project will also include people across the border in the Spanish hinterland.  The project team only began collecting data in January 2014 but there are already some striking findings.

The first is that Gibraltar is a much more diverse place than previous research would suggest.  Related to this is the way in which experiences of the border – which so defines Gibraltarianness – are equally varied.  The border simply means different things to different people.  Crossing it means something to a young Gibraltarian who may enjoy the diversity and anonymity of night life in Spain; it may mean something else to people with a disability when crossing the border is hot and difficult.  It will also mean something else to an older generation who never experienced these border difficulties in pre-1960s Gibraltar.  Different religious and ethnic groups experience the border in different ways: Orthodox Jews, for example, might enjoy living in a walled city, which has certain consequences on the Sabbath, and will have difficulty finding kosher food once they cross the border into Spain, whereas long term residents with Indian or Moroccan nationality will need visas to travel to Spain.  Other Gibraltarians will blithely pass through the city walls on a Saturday and go to Spain precisely to enjoy the food. 

Furthermore, I have been struck by the number of people we have met who have a story of not being able to attend a family funeral in Spain when the border was shut during the last decade of Franco’s regime, and well into the era of democratic Spain. This single act, for many, is the moment of rupture for people born on both sides of the border, and some articulate it with disarming clarity. As one woman married to a Gibraltarian said: "That was the day I stopped being Spanish".

There is no doubt that many Gibraltarians feel the daily harassment and humiliation of crossing the border and this translates to a profound and very public antipathy towards Spain.  There are also many Gibraltarians who have quite a complex relationship with Spain and the Spanish language.  Some may dislike Spain but have been born in Spain themselves or have a Spanish mother; some prefer speaking in English but can only write poetry in Spanish, or lament the fact that the younger generation no longer speaks Spanish but insists on speaking English to all children, including their own. Others might underline the profound cultural differences between Gibraltarians and Spanish but then point out that Gibraltarians are temperamentally much more like Spaniards than English people, and so on.   We have also found that class is a strong determinant in how the border is experienced and the networks that are established between the various communities.

On the other hand, many Gibraltarians say they are proud to be British but can’t imagine living in England; that they were shocked at how different everything was when they first went to the UK. They might see Spanish people as unreliable and untrustworthy in contrast to English people, but the latter are cold and don’t value their families. People’s attitudes to both Spain and the UK are infinitely more nuanced and complex than might appear at first glance. 

The central hypothesis of our project is, therefore, that before the Second World War (and to a considerable extent after) people on both sides of the border shared language, culture and kinship ties and there was little distinction between those who were “Spanish” and those who were “Gibraltarian”. Today these links are much more tenuous and differences, rather than similarities, are most likely to be stressed – especially in public.  This study aims to trace these changes over time, to explore the genesis of a Gibraltarian people and their identity through the life stories of those who have lived through the modern period, and to bring out the extraordinary diversity of experience of those who call themselves Gibraltarian. 

Andrew Canessa is a professor of sociology at the University of Essex


Photo: Getty
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Gibraltar - impact of Brexit

Last week our editor took a general overview of some of the scenarios for Gibraltar if Britain were to leave the Euro. This week, as the atmosphere in the British Conservative Party becomes ever more toxic, Michael Castiel, partner at Hassans lawyers on the Rock, goes into more detail (this piece written before the Iain Duncan Smith resignation and subsequent arguments happened).

However unlikely it may prove, the prospect of Britain's withdrawal from the EU sends shivers through Gibraltar's financial services, gaming and tourism industries, which are at the core of Gibraltar’s economy. For, if Britain leaves the EU, Gibraltar goes too, and, should Brexit occur, it is Gibraltar’s relationship with the UK that as in the past, largely will shape Gibraltar's future.

Gibraltar joined the European Union in 1973 as part of the UK. While rights to freedom of services across borders of EU member states apply between Gibraltar and the rest of the EU, because Gibraltar is not a separate member state (and is in fact part of the UK Member State) those rights do not apply between Gibraltar and the UK. Instead a bilateral agreement, formalised almost two decades ago, gives Gibraltar's financial service companies the equivalent EU passporting rights into the UK. Accordingly and pursuant to such agreement, where EU rights in banking, insurance and other financial services are concerned, the UK treats Gibraltar as if it is a separate member state.

This reliance on the special relationship with the UK is recognised by both the Government and the Opposition in Gibraltar, and when the territory (which in this instance as part of the UK electorate) goes to the polls on 23 June, the vote to remain in the EU is likely to be overwhelming. This may have symbolic significance but realistically seems unlikely to influence the outcome. In actual terms, although some non-EU jurisdictions use Gibraltar and its EU passporting rights as a stepping stone into Europe, almost 80% of Gibraltar’s business dealings are with the UK.

But whether or not Britain maintains the 'special relationship' with Gibraltar, if Brexit becomes a reality, other factors will come into play, with the ever-present Spanish Government’s historic sovereignty claim over Gibraltar topping the list.

Recently Spain's caretaker Foreign Minister Jose Maria Margallo went on record that if the UK voted to leave the EU he would immediately 'raise with the UK the question of Gibraltar.' If this was to come about it could take one or more of several different forms, ranging from a complete closure of the border between Spain and Gibraltar, demanding that Gibraltar passport-holders obtain costly visas to visit or transit Spain, imposing more stringent border controls, or a frontier toll on motorists driving into or out of Gibraltar. The latter idea was in fact floated by the Spanish Government three years ago, but dropped when the EU Commission indicated that any such toll would contravene EU law.

Here, again, imponderables come into play, for much will depend on which political parties will form the next Spanish government. A Spanish government headed by the right wing PP party is likely to take a less accommodating attitude towards Gibraltar (the Foreign Minister having recently indicated that in case of Brexit the Spanish Government may opportunistically push once again for a joint sovereignty deal with the UK over Gibraltar) whereas a left of centre coalition will likely adopt a more pragmatic and cooperative relationship with Gibraltar in the event of EU exit.

The most significant changes to Gibraltar's post-Brexit operation as an international finance centre are likely to be in the sphere of tax, and while Gibraltar has always met its obligations in relation to the relevant EU rules and Directives, it has also been slightly uncomfortable with aspects of the EU's moves towards harmonisation of corporate taxes across member states.

Although it was formed as a free market alliance, since its inception fiscal matters have been at the root of the EU, but Gibraltar's 'special relationship' with Britain has allowed considerable latitude in relation to what taxes it imposes or those it doesn't. However, as is the case with other member states, Gibraltar has increasingly found in recent years its fiscal sovereignty eroded and its latitude on tax matters severely curtailed.

As in Britain, Gibraltar has benefitted from several EU Directives introduced to harmonise and support the freedom of establishment, particularly the Parent-Subsidiary Directive which prohibits withholding taxes on cross-border intra-group interest dividend and royalty payments made within the EU.

As a stepping stone for foreign direct investment, should Brexit come about EU subsidiaries could no longer rely on these Directives to allow tax-free dividend or interest payments to their holding companies based in Gibraltar. In the case of the UK, bilateral double tax treaties will no doubt mitigate the impact of the non-application of any tax related Directives. Gibraltar, however, is not currently a party to any bilateral double tax treaties. Accordingly, Gibraltar would either have to seek from the UK the extension of all or some of the UK’s bilateral tax treaties to Gibraltar (subject of course to the agreement by the relevant counterparties) or it would need to negotiate its own network of bilateral double tax treaties with a whole series of EU and non EU Member States. To say the least, neither of these options would be straightforward to implement at short notice and would need the wholehearted support of the British Government

Whilst Gibraltar’s economy is likely to be adversely affected should Brexit occur, there may be some potential benefits. An EU exit would result in fewer regulations and possibly may provide Gibraltar with greater exposure to emerging economies.

From a tax perspective, an EU exit would probably enable Gibraltar to introduce tax rules and incentives that are contrary to EU tax laws and would provide the Gibraltar Government more freedom to adopt competitive tax regimes that may be considered contrary to EU state aid rules. How possible or effective any such strategy would be is doubtful given the OECD driven anti-tax avoidance climate affecting all reputable jurisdictions whether within or outside the EU.

In this as well as other possible change much will hinge on any post-Brexit relationship with the UK - an issue which the Gibraltar Government addressed recently in a paper sent to Westminster's Foreign Affairs Committee. It stressed not only that 'EU membership has been an important factor in the development of Gibraltar’s economy' but also the importance of 'clarity as to the rights the British Government will protect and defend for Gibraltar in the context of its own negotiations.'