A polling station during the 2014 European parliament elections in Gibraltar. (Photo: Getty)
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The Rock and the hard place – Gibraltar and the EU

A few weeks ago outgoing Gibraltar Chronicle editor and now Chief Minister’s Special Representative Dominique Searle put out a plea for the UK to stay in the EU. This week he looks into the history of its membership and how relations between the UK and Spain have shaped this membership.

The Rock became part of the EU through UK’s accession  in 1973 but,largely because of Spain’s hostility including the closed border,it was excluded from the Customs Union. That allowed for access to food supplies from nearby Morocco and other goods that had to be shipped from third countries. Like the UK the Rock is outside Schengen and  can now only join   with consent from all members states including Spain.

The obvious fear in Gibraltar  is that, if UK opts out of the EU, Spain will not hesitate to close the border again as it did for 16 years from 1969.

It’s legend, but almost certainly true given those who whispered it to me, that one the first things Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo did when he first strolled into his office as Spanish Foreign Affairs Minister was to ask officials ‘Can I close the gate?’

It’s worth explaining a little about this. The gate (verja) -  Spain declines to recognise it as a true border -  is literally an old green metal gate that separates Gibraltar from Spain. It’s been open for 30 years now, since February 1985. It’s no secret that Spain disputes Gibraltar’s right to exist as an independent country, or even as a British Overseas Territory and those close to Sr Margallo thereforenot only don’t recognise the gate as a frontier, they think it was a mistake to have opened it.

But that ‘gate’ is an EU border and Margallo has had to live with the fact that, whilst Gibraltar is part of the EU, there are ‘ freedoms’  that he is obliged to respect. His diplomats told him as much.

It was the Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco who closed the border in 1969. His reasoning was his fury with the use of the territory as a British and NATO military base and Britain’s decision to give the Rock increasing emancipation by legislating for a Gibraltarian parliament along the lines enjoyed by other small Commonwealth territories at the time. After Franco died in 1975 the frontier gates remained closed, to all but the occasional ‘humanitarian’ passage of a coffin, for an even longer period under the democracy of the ‘Transition the period of amnesty that allowed for democratic government in Spain.

The leverage point, balancing the obvious importance to the West of bringing Spain into the EU and making it a NATO ally with the huge economic benefits promised by membership, came in the early 1980s as Margaret Thatcher skillfully put pressure on both sides.

In 1984 she closed the last bastion of the military dominance by closing the naval dockyard and declaring tourism and financial services as the new pillars of the economy. With military spending accounting for over 70% of that economy Mrs Thatcher was clearly aware that this would bring pressure to bear on Gibraltarians to at least see some benefit in friendly relations with a hostile but changing neighbour.

With the border still a stumbling block to accession; flying in the face of EU principles that had applied to Gibraltar through the UK’s European status since 1973, Spain did not want its citizens entering Gibraltar under the hospitality of the British. And Britain could not support the accession of Spain to the EU and partnership in Nato  without this thorny issue being resolved.

In the event talks, stalled by the Falklands invasion, produced the November 1984 Brussels Agreement which opened the border fully in February 1985 but created a process of negotiations at which Spain could raise sovereignty but which remained open-ended in that respect. That is, UK could hold to its commitment to Gibraltar that it would not do any sovereignty deals against the wishes of the people. Spain was free to be persuasive.

That agreement also ‘advanced’ EU rights to Spaniards in Gibraltar so that, although they were not actually in the European Community until January 1986, no noses were put out of joint for that process to take place.

The status has been like an uneasy truce ever since. Spain makes its displeasure at Gibraltar’s status clear from time to time but mostly the status is tolerated – until the spectre of a referendum on British membership of the EU is raised, bringing with it the possibility of a UK exit. The sustainability of Gibraltarian membership after that would have to be open to question and Chief Minister Fabian Picardo has accordingly made noises about a new relationship with Europe.

It would be simpler and, many believe, beneficial to all, if the UK just stayed put.


Photo: Getty
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Gibraltar and Europe: caught in the slipstream?

The British papers are full of who has the lead in the European in or out campaigns – Guy Clapperton considers the fallout for the smaller territories

Let’s start by acknowledging that there is no clear pattern emerging in the Europe debate, as long as we understand “Europe debate” to mean whether the UK should stay in or leave the European Union. This week alone we’ve seen Boris Johnson “warning Obama off” (as the BBC put it) getting involved in the debated, the same London Mayor and MP having a radio spat with Chuka Umunna involving telling each other to man up and various insults traded as either side accuses the other of scaremongering or making it up as they go along.

Divining who’s going to win is more difficult. The Daily Telegraph reports that “out” has it by a tiny margin but, crucially, the anti-Europe vote is likely to be more motivated so will actually show up on the day, expanding the margin by which it will win. Meanwhile the Times’ daily Red Box email points to Elections Etc. whose research suggests a 58% “remain” vote but with a plus or minus 14% error margin; so somewhere between 44% and 72% will go for staying in the EU. This, readers will note, tells us precisely nothing.

So the outcome, even if there weren’t 100 days in which Presidents and world leaders will offer counsel, claims and counterclaims will be made and the “leave” campaign will eventually decide who the official “leave” group actually is (there are two factions at the moment, doing the best impression of the Monty Python Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea that they can manage), we wouldn’t want to call a snap referendum even if it were to be called this afternoon.

What’s clear is that the outcome will ripple beyond the British mainland’s shores, and the ramifications of an “out” vote are already being felt on Gibraltar. Anyone doubting this should check today’s Times (subscription required), in which the Gibraltarian Chief Minister Fabian Picardo highlights recent Spanish statements about what would happen in the event of a Brexit.

Spain actually caused a few eyebrows to raise and some other people to panic just a little with its recent statements. Essentially the country’s foreign minister, José Manuel García-Margallo, suggested that there would be conversations on the sovereignty of Gibraltar the “day after” an announcement of a British exit, according to the Daily Mail and other reports. He also said (much, much further down the report) that he didn’t want Britain to leave: “God forbid” is the phrase he uses.

He raised the idea of joint sovereignty once again more recently, reports the Gibraltar Chronicle, this time suggesting that if Britain leaves Europe then Gib could do what it nearly did (he says) in 2002 and start transitioning towards Spain. This is an interesting definition of “nearly” when 98.48% of the electorate actually voted not to do so, but remaining British when this might exclude the Rock from Europe would inevitably raise different issues if not a different final outcome.

Outside Gibraltarian interests the effect could be more severe than that. SNP leader and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has made no secret of her wish to make a fresh case for Scottish independence. The once-in-a-generation referendum on this was lost in 2014 but should Britain exit Europe with a majority of Scots clearly demonstrating that they want to stay in, the case becomes stronger (although the collapse of the oil price would blow the original blueprint out of the water).

So we could end up with Scotland as well as Gibraltar wanting to remain in Europe while Britain made its exit. Whether this would be legally possible if both stayed tied to Britain is untested as yet – and with Spain eager to enter talks the day after an exit is agreed but the Gibraltarians implacably opposed to becoming Spanish, the way forward would not be clear.

Guy Clapperton is the freelance journalist who edits the New Statesman’s Gibraltar hub. You can also find him in the Guardian, Computer Business Review and Professional Outsourcing which he edits.