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Between the Rock and a hard place: Gibraltar’s Brexit limbo

The British Overseas Territory has long existed between two cultures, but the UK’s decision to leave the EU has magnified uncertainty over its place in the world.

“No one knows anything right now.” 

The Gibraltarian MP Marlene Hassan Nahon’s first words when we meet, at a tapas bar just off Gibraltar’s Main Street, could refer to the UK in general in these uncertain times. In particular, they recall the insecurity of Northern Ireland as it waits to see whether it will return to the days of borders and conflict.

Gibraltar is acutely conscious of its vulnerability. As Nahon points out, “we’re always in a state of anxiety here, we’ve constantly been in conflict.” As a member of the Gibraltarian parliament, her uncertainty over how Brexit will play out is telling. “We should expect more from the UK, but people are also really angry with the EU.”

You have to really visit Gibraltar to understand the tight webs that bind the British Overseas Territory together. Hassan Nahon is the daughter of Sir Joshua Hassan, the legendary post-war Gibraltarian chief minister. She is herself the founder of a new movement, Together Gibraltar, which aims at “empowering the citizens of Gibraltar and engaging them in the development of a better, fairer society”.

Our meeting was short as she was rushing between engagements. One of the other people sitting at our table pointed out a similarly hurried Fabian Picardo, the current Gibraltarian chief minister, as he walked by. While Nahon is an opposition MP, she says she “can’t fault the government on Brexit, they are doing everything they can.”

Politics here is an intimate affair, on both a large and small-scale. One day during my visit I sat down to lunch with a businessman who owns a team in the Gibraltar football league. On the next table was his ex-business partner, with whom he is engaged in a legal tussle over the ownership of the club. They ignored each other, but elsewhere I was struck how a walk down Main Street with a Gibraltarian is a constant stop-start affair as a stream of friends, enemies and colleagues greet them for a chat.

I was invited to Gibraltar by Understanding Gibraltar, another newly formed civil society group whose ambitious aim is to “universalise the exceptional status quo of acceptance and tolerance existing for many years and today in Gibraltar”. They point out that, since the British took the territory in the Spanish War of Succession and were ceded it in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, Gibraltar was re-populated not just by the British but by Jews, Maltese, Genoese and more recently South Asians and Moroccans. The group emphasises the multicultural yet cohesive nature of Gibraltarian identity and seeks to make it better known in the world.

Multiculturalism and diversity is not what immediately comes to mind when thinking about Gibraltar. Its rock connotes rugged intransigence; it appears to be a stubborn remnant of British imperialism, clinging on where other outposts have been lost. The border with Spain that bisects the narrow isthmus leading to the rock is anything but “frictionless”, and it has been closed by Spain on multiple occasions in the last 300 years. Walk over from La Linea on the other side of the frontier and you can’t help notice the sudden change in the road signage (the same fonts as in the UK), the shift in currency from Euros to pounds and the preponderance of British chain stores, including a massive Morrisons.

Paradoxes abound in this tiny, densely-populated sliver of land. Multicultural diversity was certainly not in the minds of the British when they conquered the rock. Its value was as a strategically-located fortress. The problem was that it had to be provisioned. And, as governors complained throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, few British settlers were interested in providing Gibraltar with what it needed. So it was that North African Sephardi Jews became crucial in keeping the rock supplied through their Moroccan contacts. It was the Genoese and Maltese who did the often low-paid work of keeping the ever-expanding docks operating. Over time, an outpost of white, Protestant Britain became a territory that was kept running by non-white Catholics and Jews.

The Gibraltarian nation – which is how many of its residents describe it - was created by accident and was, for much of its history, a necessary inconvenience that interfered with the smooth running of the military citadel. It took the kind of pressure seen in other outposts of empire to give Gibraltarians the autonomy they sought. Joshua Hassan’s Civil Rights Movement, which fought to achieve greater autonomy, was born out of the traumatic experience of World War Two, when most of Gibraltar’s citizens were evacuated twice – once to Morocco and once to the UK – in chaotic and traumatic circumstances.

The territory is no stranger to protest and is proud of its truculence. Michael Netto, an official for Gibraltar’s branch of Unite, proudly showed me round an exhibition at their headquarters devoted to the assistance that the territory’s trade unions gave to their beleaguered Spanish cousins during the civil war (often against the wishes of the British authorities). “We have a radical tradition here,” Netto told me, “some Gibraltarians fought on the Republican side in the civil war. Our union goes back 100 years and we have 2300 members here.”

Abdul El Hana, of the Moroccan Worker’s Association, gave me an Arabic booklet that records the long-fought struggle for civil rights for guest workers from the 1960s onward. As he tells me, “we were initially guest workers in the 1960s and most of us came over without our families. We really had to fight for our rights and to bring our families.” Now though, they are well integrated. El Hana mentions the huge mosque at Europa Point, built in 1997 at the tip of the peninsula. “Where else in Europe does the government give the land for a mosque in such a prime location?”, still though, he admits with a laugh, “it was built with Saudi money and most of us Morrocans prefer to pray in the mosque in town.”

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Even if the struggles of the Gibraltarian nation for control of its destiny are similar to other such battles during Britain’s retreat from empire, it remains a British possession, something most of its residents have no wish to change. And Spain often sees Gibraltar as an imperial hangover that impinges on its territorial integrity.

This view of Gibraltar as an imperial anachronism is tacitly encouraged by the way the territory is understood in the UK (insofar as it is understood at all). A front cover from the Sun in April 2017, proclaimed “Up Yours Senors” (the misspelling of Señors was telling) at renewed Spanish claims to the rock. A Channel Five documentary series, Gibraltar: Britain in the Sun, depicted the territory as populated purely by expat British eccentrics and forelock-tugging “native” imperial nostalgists. 

On the ground though, the connections between Gibraltar and its Spanish hinterland (known as the Campo to Gibraltar) run strong and deep. It has always attracted workers and merchants from what is one of the poorest regions of Spain and there are intricate family connections across the border. Much of Gibraltar is Spanish-speaking (in the form of a local patois called Llanito) to this day. As Michael Netto tells me, “the trade unions collaborate closely across the border, together with employers’ associations – we’ve even been to Brussels! – and the Spanish socialist party (the PSOE) has had historically good ties with the Gibraltar Socialist Labour Party.” At the start of June, Pedro Sánchez’s PSOE formed a minority government. It remains to be seen whether this be enough to warm the relationship with Gibraltar.

It is precisely because Gibraltarians are closely connected to Spain that they become so angry when the Spanish government flexes its muscles over the border. As many people pointed out to me, those Gibraltarians whose first language is Spanish are the most likely to be implacably anti-Spanish. But this is not an opposition to Spanish society and culture so much as a hatred of Madrid and its machinations.

If anything turned Gibraltar from an imperial outpost into a nation, it was the closure of the border under Franco from 1969 until the early 1980s. “They’re so stupid really,’ Marlene Hassan Nahon sighs, “Had Spain not done what it did 60 years ago, everything would be different.”

The closed border didn’t just cause economic inconvenience and transport difficulties, it tore families apart. The Gibraltarian conceptual artist Ambrose Avellano, whom I met on my visit, has been drawing on this trauma in his art. The cover of his book The Closed Frontier Years, features a picture of a father raising his toddler son up over the frontier gates so a distant Spanish family member can see him. Avellano told me that the book, which contains testimony of that period, “was not written to be read, but to be framed and enclosed in a case; this is a chapter that cannot be spoken of today without pain.”

Avellano also produces work that expresses frustration with more recent Spanish behaviour, such as its periodic slowdown in border checks that result in long queues to get out of the territory. One sculpture is an automated queue of cars, endlessly trickling up and down a narrow pillar.

Spain does have legitimate grievances, both historic and contemporary. Most of the original residents of the rock were compelled to leave when the British conquered it. The extensive building on the isthmus from the Second World War onwards is certainly not in the spirit of the Treaty of Utrecht, which deemed it to be a no man’s land or buffer zone. The stream of Spaniards coming across the border to take advantage of Gibraltar’s lower taxes on cigarettes, petrol and alcohol is irritating for Spanish authorities. The long history of Spanish workers coming across the border to earn higher wages is also an embarrassing reminder of the poverty in the hinterland (and, in the past at least, working conditions were often exploitative). And while, as an offshore financial centre, Gibraltar is less secretive than other territories, this aspect of Gibraltar’s economy is not one that makes outsiders warm to the place.

Yet Spanish policy has often been self-defeating to say the least. The closed border period forced the territory to look to its own resources, which put it in a good position once the border was re-opened and most of the British military presence was scaled down in the 1980s. As Gibraltar became largely self-governing and self-funding, it developed its own model of living: positioning itself in globalised neo-liberal world through exploiting niches in financial services, shipping and tourism, while simultaneously building a strong public sector (embodied in the territory’s multiple public housing estates).

Joshua Lhote, one of the founders of Understanding Gibraltar, believes that Gibraltar is unique in what he calls its “neo-liberal collectivism”.

“We have managed to harmonise collectivism and individualism. This place is a laboratory really. It is something the world needs to know about.”

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So, where does Brexit fit into all of this? Although Gibraltar is a British Overseas Territory, it is – unlike, say, the Falklands or Bermuda – part of the EU. While the situation has been compared to Northern Ireland, there are some important differences. Unlike the now largely-invisible line dividing Northern Ireland and the Republic, there has never been a truly open border between Spain and Gibraltar. Unlike Northern Ireland, Gibraltar is much more cohesive, with no history of internal violent conflict and almost no support for Spanish rule. What is similar though is that Spain and Gibraltar are as intertwined as Northern Ireland and the Republic. Brexit poses a challenge to this interconnection. Further, the EU provided a kind of guarantor against what is perceived to be Spanish aggression – no EU state can completely close its borders to another EU state.

Unsurprisingly, Gibraltar voted over 95 per cent for Remain in the 2016 referendum. Yet events since then have, I was told by many people, increased hostility to the EU. Crucially, the EU’s negotiation guidelines, published in April 2017, stated that “After the United Kingdom leaves the Union, no agreement between the EU and the United Kingdom may apply to the territory of Gibraltar without the agreement between the Kingdom of Spain and the United Kingdom.” This has been seen as an effective Spanish veto on a Brexit deal. While the UK pro-Brexit right may have huffed and puffed over this, it is hard to see Brexit being derailed over Gibraltar – Northern Ireland is more than enough of a challenge.

And yet Brexit reveals Gibraltar’s vulnerability as an autonomous society. While Spain is the primary target of Gibraltarian anger, there is no shortage of complaints against Britain. The fear of being “sold out” by the mother country may lack the vehemence of Ulster unionism, but Gibraltarians, like Ulster Protestants, are fully aware that they are way down the list of British political concerns. The British left has never been particularly interested in Gibraltar. Peter Hain, who pushed for co-sovereignty over the rock during the New Labour years, is not a popular figure in the territory. Nor is Blair himself, with his close relations with the right-wing nationalist Spanish prime minister José María Aznar, remembered particularly fondly. Insofar as the Corbynite left ever thinks about the British Overseas Territories, it is through a post-colonial perspective that fails to recognise the fact of Gibraltarian nationhood. And now the British pro-Brexit right has also shown its lack of consideration for the territory, for all the talk about regaining British sovereignty and the barely-concealed nostalgia for empire. 

But the language through which Gibraltarian identity is articulated has hardly helped matters, in that it appears at first sight to be identical to the language of British patriotism. While there is no doubt that that patriotism is strong in Gibraltar, it is also self-interested to the extent that its status as a British Overseas Territory offers the strongest guarantee that it can remain a self-governing, autonomous nation. Gibraltarian identity is fundamentally hybrid, yet it articulates itself through what appears to be implacable opposition to anything that looks like formal recognition of this hybridity.

One can see this in the widespread suspicion at Spanish proposals to share Gibraltar’s airport. The terminal is only metres from the border and the runway bisects the isthmus connecting the rock to Spain just a few hundred metres away from the fence. As I found when I flew in and out, the terminal is much too big for the few planes that fly in each day. So why not share? Maybe it will happen one day, but it’s hard for Gibraltarians not to feel suspicion when they look at the border crossing point just a few metres away from the terminal and think of the times when increased Spanish customs checks have led to hours-long traffic jams.

One of the unpleasant by-products of border disputes is that they tend to transform the public image of the society behind the border into an angry, homogeneous mass. The significance of the project Understanding Gibraltar is that it seems to represent an emerging recognition that the territory’s interests would best be served by explaining to the world what it is they are trying to protect. As became clear to me on my visit, Gibraltarians have devoted an extraordinary amount of energy to building a society that contains pretty much all the elements one would find in an independent nation.

Where other British overseas and crown dependencies usually have a cosy political culture, dominated by independent elected representatives, Gibraltar has its own political parties and a healthy churn of MPs and governments. Civil society is replete with NGOs, pressure groups, unions and campaigns. Gibraltar has one daily and one weekly newspaper and its own TV and radio stations. There is a fast-expanding university, and art, theatre, music and literature.

Even Gibraltar’s sporting associations have developed an infrastructure reminiscent of much bigger nations. The Gibraltar national football team plays in the World and European Cup qualifiers and its native league is semi-professional – astonishing given that there is really only one stadium in which teams can compete.

All this for 32,000 people, stuffed into 6 square miles, much of which is taken up by the (largely uninhabited) rock.

This is a nation then, but one that can only fight for its interests through expressing its allegiance to a larger nation. The problem is, that in a world of nation states, nation non-states like Gibraltar do not seem to fit. The complex status of the British Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies – as well as similar anomalies such as Guam and Puerto Rico – are only really understood by geography geeks and diplomats.

This anomalousness is one of the reasons why the EU, while it mitigated the Gibraltar dispute, never really managed to solve it. The European Union is a framework that manages relations between nation states and, to a lesser extent, between sub-national regions. There has never been any desire in the EU to open up new models of sovereignty.

Gibraltar would fit better into a world that had a broader range of possibilities for nationhood – city states, autonomous territories and other more exotic forms.

Whatever Brexit holds, Gibraltar will likely continue to be inconvenient and misunderstood. In the meantime, Gibraltarians will keep on building a robust and diverse society, in a place in which visitors stare up at the rock and its apes, but usually fail to see the fascinating human world in the teaming streets below. 

Keith Kahn-Harris is a sociologist and is the co-author of “Turbulent Times: the British Jewish Community Today”