Black storks migrating over the Strait of Gibraltar. (Photo credit: F Barrios)
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Special Feature

Booted eagles and Barbary macaques: how Gibraltar balances green with growth

Managing nature conservation and economic development in one of the smallest and most biodiverse spots in Europe is no mean feat, says environmental minister Dr John Cortes.

For a territory tiny by most standards, a springtime walk high on the Rock of Gibraltar is fascinating. By any comparison, the diversity of plants and animals – and the uniqueness of its natural community – is truly amazing.

The top of the Rock is a special place too.  Almost 400 metres shear up from the deep blue Mediterranean, the Rif mountains of Morocco look almost at arm’s reach to the south, while the hillsides of Andalusia stretch north and then east to the Sierra Nevada. The city of Gibraltar buzzes below, at the foot of a slope of Mediterranean scrubland scented with rosemary, lavender and a very special Gibraltar thyme.  In spring, the shrubs shelter resting migrating songbirds, not persecuted on this patch of British soil, while overhead groups of birds of prey, black kites, honey buzzards, Egyptian vultures, booted eagles and many more soar lazily before gliding off over the hinterland and towards their European nesting grounds.

As they move north, they overfly a nature reserve that covers 50 per cent of Gibraltar and holds a rich diversity of plants (including at least five found nowhere else in Europe) and hundreds of species of beetles and other invertebrates (some indigenous to the Rock), before gliding over a city with one of the strongest per capita economies anywhere.

The uninitiated visitor likely knows more about Gibraltar’s economy than its biodiversity. The business man might not notice the thousands of birds of prey and hundreds of storks overhead, or the monarch butterfly gliding by as he shops in Main Street, or sips a cool drink in Ocean Village marina.  The businesswoman who works in one of the Europort offices may think that Gibraltar has little more than Barbary macaques on the hillside, although she will know that Gibraltar had a record budget surplus if £65m last year.

A look around Gibraltar today shows a dynamic world of contrast; of the old and the new.  It will show construction projects: most of the housing estates are being extensively renovated for the first time since they were built decades ago, and three new affordable housing estates are being built to slash the housing waiting list. There is a new World Trade Centre under construction, and plans have been approved for a hotel, and office and residential accommodation near the city centre. New tourist and residential complexes, to be built on reclaimed land on the east side, are also being considered.  Amid all this you will see a botanic garden, and a brand new city park, complete with grass, plane trees, ponds, weeping willow and bandstand, with another park planned for next year.  And of course there is the picturesque old town, currently seeing an unprecedented spate of renewal, such as the historic stretch of defensive wall along the Wellington Front currently being restored as a north-south walk and cycle lane along the town.

However, none of these major projects will destroy wildlife or their habitats. For instance, all are required to provide nest sites for swifts and roosts for bats, while some – like the new park – will actually enhance the natural environment. Quite how Gibraltar has been able to develop as it has, with unemployment now dropped to about 1 per cent, and yet keep its biodiversity and protected areas intact may seem miraculous, and has certainly been no mean feat.  The present government, elected in December 2011, is ensuring that this remains so.  It set up a “green filter” for all Government projects, and converted a formerly in-camera planning system into an open, public process, where all are welcome to express their views.

Gibraltar is also revolutionising how it looks at energy.  A key decision to change plans to replace our creaking diesel power plants with more diesel generators, and instead to develop a natural gas-fired plant in the industrialised port area, proved Gibraltar’s new-found commitment to tackle pollution and energy needs and to work towards a sustainable future. Solar power is at last being tapped, with pilot projects to use energy from the sea and other renewable sources also being encouraged.  The aim is to produce at least 20 per cent of power from renewables by 2020, and 40 per cent or more by 2030.  All new buildings now comply with European energy efficiency standards, and many are being fitted with solar panels and smart meters.  Combined with the new power station and a shift to low energy devices in both public and private lighting, as well as an aggressive energy-efficiency strategy, these policies will give Gibraltar responsible, low-polluting power resilience that will be an example to the world.

The promotion of recycling, of electric and hybrid vehicles (including in the government’s own fleet), and a definite move towards non-polluting methods of waste treatment are now the way things are done in Gibraltar.  This in itself is encouraging the development of a whole new industry in the private sector. As the “green” sector expands exponentially worldwide, Gibraltar is ready to respond and welcome it.

The government’s department of the environment has grown from humble beginnings to include a dynamic team of young scientists, enforcement and support staff, who work closely with non-governmental organisations nationally and with professionals in other countries, mainly the United Kingdom and the other UK Overseas Territories. Gibraltar also promotes the message outwards, with an ever increasing presence in meetings and conferences around the world, including the United Nations Climate Summit in New York last September.

One major thrust of the department’s work is environmental education.  This is key not only in spreading the message, but also in ensuring that future generations have a solid grasp of sustainability.  Apart from reaching out to schools and youth groups, the department has developed a presence on social media, is working on a series of apps, and created and continuously expands its “Thinking Green” website.

The department also supports practical conservation projects.  For example, it directs vegetation management work within the Gibraltar Nature Reserve and is collaborating with the Gibraltar Ornithological and Natural History Society in a programme to stabilise and enhance the Rock’s population of the Barbary partridge, a species which on mainland Europe only occurs within this reserve.

It has also recently established a presence at sea, with new vessels to monitor marine life and assess conservation problems.  The seas around Gibraltar – British Gibraltar Territorial Waters extend three miles to the east and south and midway across the Bay of Gibraltar – are, like the mainland, a mix of human industry and rich marine life. Alongside bunkering and recreational vessels, hundreds of common and striped dolphins use the waters as feeding and breeding areas as well as large populations of migrating and wintering seabirds.

The Gibraltarians are a proud people.  And we take pride in everything that gives us an identity.  It may be the iconic limestone Rock, or our national football team, now a member of UEFA.  But increasingly our unique and diverse natural history is recognised as an asset of which to be proud.  The logic of developing in a sustainable way, of controlling how we produce and use energy so that we improve air quality and reduce unnecessary cost, tied with an unstoppable ambition to succeed as a community - socially and economically - make Gibraltar the place to watch.

About the author

Dr John Cortes MBE JP CBiol FLS is Minister for Health and the Environment in Her Majesty’s Government of Gibraltar.  He Graduated in Botany and Zoology in Royal Holloway College, London in 1979.  He became Doctor of Philosophy at Magdalen College, Oxford in 1983.  Between 1991 and 2011 he was Director of the Gibraltar Botanic Gardens and between 1976 and 2011 he was Genereal Secretary of the Gibraltar Ornithological & Natural history Society, the BirdLife Partner in Gibraltar.  He has published in the natural sciences, including botany, ornithology and macaque biology.


Dr John Cortes MBE JP CBiol FLS is Minister for Health and the Environment in Her Majesty’s Government of Gibraltar.  He Graduated in Botany and Zoology in Royal Holloway College, London in 1979.  He became Doctor of Philosophy at Magdalen College, Oxford in 1983.  Between 1991 and 2011 he was Director of the Gibraltar Botanic Gardens and between 1976 and 2011 he was Genereal Secretary of the Gibraltar Ornithological & Natural history Society, the BirdLife Partner in Gibraltar.  He has published in the natural sciences, including botany, ornithology and macaque biology.

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.'