Making social science accessible

28 Jul 2023

UK-EU Relations

Following the recent Spanish elections, Andrew Canessa shines a light on the problematic nature of Gibraltar’s border with Spain, and the protracted efforts to resolve the issue.

At the time of the Brexit referendum, in which Gibraltar voted 96% Remain, Gibraltar Chief Minister Fabian Picardo described the event as representing an ‘existential threat’ to Gibraltar and, even though he has rowed back from that statement since, he quite accurately pinpointed the profound change Brexit implies for Gibraltar as we know it today and for much of the last century. Spain’s recent elections where the right was widely assumed to be heading for success brought this anxiety into sharp relief.

Gibraltarians’ relationship with the UK rests on the two pillars of the economic and political support being British brings. For much of its British history this was covered by Britain’s economic and military imperial might and today, whatever former Conservative leader Michael Howard may have said, the UK is not going to send gunboats to defend Gibraltar.

This protective relationship transformed even as Imperial Britain waned, as the UK was able to defend Gibraltarian interests as a member of the EU including, for example, insisting that Spain open its land border with Gibraltar as a condition for accession to the (then) European Economic Community (EEC).

However, there is not much the UK can do today if the EU wants to refer to the Falkland Islands as Las Malvinas, the Argentine name for the British Overseas Territory, or indeed when it comes to the EU’s relationship with its Overseas Territory on Spain – and Europe’s – southern extremity. Whatever the dispute, the EU will now naturally take the side of Spain, one of its largest members, over that of a third country, whatever its previous status within the EU. This is a hard reality of Brexit.

Today Spain, the UK, the EU, and Gibraltar are in the middle of a protracted set of negotiations to resolve the problem of Gibraltar that Brexit has produced. Gibraltar entered the EEC with the UK and left the EU when the UK left but a hard border between Gibraltar and Spain would not only choke the Gibraltar economy, it would also deprive 15,000 people who cross the border daily to work in Gibraltar of their jobs. As the Gibraltar Government likes to point out, only the Andalusian regional government employs more people in Andalusia.

Some kind of solution is in the interest of all parties and the one being pursued is that Gibraltar be part of Schengen, an area without internal border controls. The border between Gibraltar and Spain – which started out as a fence erected in 1909 to stop dogs with tobacco strapped to their backs running across the isthmus – would be no more and there would be free movement of people and goods between Gibraltar and Spain. However, the EU insists that Spain would then have responsibility for the EU’s external border and the idea that Spanish officials would be on Gibraltarian territory is something close to anathema for many Gibraltarians as it triggers a profound anxiety of a Fascist and irridentist Spain which shut the border in 1969. This is an anxiety sharpened by the electioneering of the right-wing Vox party whose leader, Santiago Abascal, said anything short of sovereignty over Gibraltar would be a ‘betrayal’, and the recovering of sovereignty over Gibraltar was in the centre right People’s Party’s (PP) July manifesto.

For Gibraltarians, the idea of ‘Spanish boots on the ground’ is a profound red line. One current proposal is that Frontex, the European Union Border and Coastguard Agency, maintain the Schengen border for a four-year transition period after which Spanish officials take over. The Gibraltar Government is quite clear that this is unacceptable.

The border has a profound significance for Gibraltarian identity. Even when crossing it can be hot and tiring and deeply frustrating, it also provides a deep sense of security for Gibraltarians. Without the border not only do Gibraltarians feel physically threatened but there are profound identitarian issues too, since that border – mental and physical – has a role in maintaining Gibraltarian identity. It is difficult to exaggerate the anxiety the prospect of uniformed Spanish officials on Gibraltarian soil produces among Gibraltarians, and this is especially so when not only Spain’s far-right Vox party but increasingly the PP are reviving a nationalist politics long thought defunct although in the recent Spanish elections it is widely understood that the PP’s willingness to govern with Vox cost them votes.

Much of the rhetoric from Gibraltar and the UK rests on the issue of sovereignty and there has been a clear and constant messaging that British sovereignty is not negotiable. What is interesting is that successive Spanish foreign ministers – even conservative ones – have long been at pains to point out that Spain is not interested in discussing sovereignty – at least not at the moment – and is focusing on the very practical issues of Spanish workers’ rights, Gibraltar’s tax regime and Gibraltar joining Schengen as way to resolve many other issues. Both sides in the negotiations regularly express a desire for a resolution to these problems but, to date, there has been no way of getting around the insistence on the one hand that no Spanish officials step foot on Gibraltar and that Spain be responsible for Schengen’s border in Gibraltar.

One might think that the threat of a Spanish veto on the talks and moving to a hard – or even closed – border would be unconscionable for Gibraltarians, but many are quite sanguine at the prospect. This is not that Gibraltarians don’t think that Spain is capable of going through with its threat, quite the opposite, as Spain demonstrated, for example when in 2013 it slowed down border crossing in protest at an artificial reef laid in Gibraltar waters, that even if it did not close the border, it could make crossing it very difficult. Recent pronouncements from the Gibraltar Government make very clear that they are prepared for a no deal. If sovereignty is in question or even Spanish officials on Gibraltar territory, many Gibraltarians, including politicians, would prefer a hard border.

For much of the Spanish right Gibraltar is seen as an open wound in the heart of Spain and can function as a useful metonym for much that is wrong with the Spanish body politic as well as serving as a distraction from domestic issues. The removal of the border, in turn, provokes an ambivalent response among Gibraltarians: the promise of being ‘European’ (again) alongside economic security and prosperity on the one hand but a real concern about Spanish intentions on the other. As Spanish politicians enter a process of forming a government – or head for new elections in two months – negotiations on Gibraltar remain stalled and a solution to the Gibraltar border questions continues to be elusive not least because, for Gibraltarians, the issues at stake are existential.

By Professor Andrew Canessa, Department of Sociology, University of Essex.

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