Gibraltar's imports have been arriving by land and sea since the early 19th century (Shutterstock)
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Gibraltar: the history of an import-led marketplace

Gibraltar’s businesses have long thrived on the demand for imported good, first from the British Royal Navy, and today from its bustling mix of 30,000 inhabitants and millions of tourists. Edward Macquisten of the Gibraltar Chamber of Commerce explains how this market has developed.

To keep the 30,000 people who live and work in Gibraltar supplied with everything from fresh meat to toner cartridges is a feat of modern logistics. Virtually everything is imported into Gibraltar.

The only manufacturing of any note is Gibraltar Crystal, which does a roaring trade in selling high quality crystal products to tourists from its premises in Casemates Square. Through the internet, this home-grown business now sells its unique figurines, decanters and glasses to customers all over the world. It encapsulates what is at the very heart of Gibraltar’s business community – trading nous. This is perhaps Gibraltar’s only natural resource; the ability to identify a market need and exploit it vigorously.

Back in the early 19th century, the British garrison in Gibraltar was supplied by merchants from the British motherland, specifically those based around the north western cities of Manchester and Liverpool.  This was fine for higher value or non-perishable items but transport by galleon was hardly fast nor was it always safe from interception from those pesky French and Spanish navies.

Traders from the established Mediterranean ports of Genoa, Valetta and Barcelona soon began calling at Gibraltar to supply goods as well. Over time some of these traders brought their families and they settled in Gibraltar, bringing with them their customs and cultures too. Over time they blended with the British and neighbouring Spanish cultures, and thus we have the modern Gibraltarian.

Importing goods into Gibraltar is a sight to behold. The queues of trucks waiting to enter Gibraltar, especially after a weekend, stretches for nearly a kilometre. For a town not much bigger than East Grinstead, it certainly imports a lot. A study published by the Gibraltar Chamber of Commerce in 2009 found that Gibraltar businesses bought over £174m worth of goods and services from Spain in 2007; everything from sand and cement to shoes and dog food.

However, the UK is still the territory’s primary trading partner. The branch of Morrisons in Gibraltar is a destination store for many locals, and also for the hundreds of thousands of European expats who live on the costas but crave a truly British retail experience. On any given day there are around 18 HGVs travelling from the UK to Gibraltar. Sending goods 1,300 miles from its UK depot to the Gibraltar store takes some doing, but it is evidently worth it for the company.

Some local companies like Saccone & Speed were set up specifically to supply the Royal Navy and the British diplomatic corps. And wherever they became established Saccone & Speed followed:  Malta, Cyprus, Africa and the Far East.  Today, even after 175 years, it is still one of the dominant importers and distributors of wines, spirits, tobacco and food on the Rock.

Locals grumble that prices for many goods are higher in Gibraltar than in Spain or the UK, but these merely reflect the higher costs of doing business in Gibraltar. For example, with space at a premium, warehousing costs are much higher than in Spain. In fact, Gibraltar has a fiercely competitive retail and wholesale market. Product sales reps visit their retail customers every weekday to secure sales, check stocks and also make sure that their competitors are not doing better than them.

That said, the exclusivity which an official importer or distributor used to enjoy has largely disappeared because of parallel trading (goods which are imported and distributed by unofficial agents) and online shopping. Indeed, internet sales into Gibraltar have boomed in the last 10 years. So much so that some of the Rock’s shopkeepers buy their stock from other online retailers and then sell it at a discount to the recommended retail price in their shops.

Currently the internet represents quite a significant threat for a number of the shops on Main Street. However, like Gibraltar Crystal, the instinct of local traders means that they will adapt so that their businesses can thrive. It is simply the Gibraltarian way.

Edward Macquisten is chief executive of the Gibraltar Chamber of Commerce

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.'