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.