Gibraltar is stuck in post-Brexit uncertainty.


Uncertain Brexit discussions over a disputed border, a complex past, and sovereignty concerns. It may seem familiar, but we are not discussing Northern Ireland.

“I don’t care if this is English, British, or French; we just want to live together and have a good time. We are uninterested in politics “Jose adds. He is one of the many thousands of laborers that go from Spain to Gibraltar every day. He’s been doing it for 30 years, largely in the hospitality industry. 

“I’d like the border to vanish,” he says, standing next to a memorial honoring Spanish laborers in Gibraltar.

The British overseas territory of Gibraltar is located at the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula. It was not included in the permanent post-Brexit agreement that presently regulates the United Kingdom’s ties with the EU. Instead, it has relied on ad hoc agreements.

The inhabitants of Gibraltar are strongly patriotic, frequently termed “more British than the British”. However, the truth is more complicated.

In the 2016 referendum, the territory voted 96% in favor of remaining a member of the EU.

The official language is English, but many also speak Spanish, frequently jumping between the two in a sort of code switching known as Llanito.

Thousands of individuals cross the border on a daily basis to work, shop, or visit relatives.

There is a lot of love for Spain and its people, but a lot of distrust for the Spanish state.

It has made conversations about their future partnership, to say the least, sensitive. On Thursday, the negotiations will resume in London.

Officially, they are between the United Kingdom and the European Union, although Gibraltar’s chief minister, Fabian Picardo, is also present. He will have to sell whatever arrangement that is struck, but he knows it will be difficult to please everyone.

We head to his office at Convent Place to meet him. Outside are two massive cannons, a strong reminder of Gibraltar’s military heritage. Mr Picardo, a lawyer by trade, gives concise and strong responses. He claims that the one certainty is that Gibraltar cannot revert to its pre-Brexit state.

“[No agreement] would be difficult in some respects, but even a negotiated solution would be painful in some ways because we would have to adjust to a new way of working in the movement of commodities and in our immigration system.”

He may be being diplomatic in his evaluation. He, like practically everyone else in Gibraltar, was an ardent supporter of the remain campaign.

“I’m not an official. I work as a politician. I speak the truth. But I’m also aware that I’m participating in the discussion, and I’m not going to inform the other side about all of our problems.”

The conversations have been kept under wraps, but according to Dr Jennifer Ballantine-Perera of the Gibraltar Garrison Library, the status of the border is central to them.

“That boundary clearly states to Gibraltarians that Gibraltar is not part of Spain. Furthermore, the barrier prevents any unauthorized entry into Spain.”

She is unequivocal about what she feels is most essential to the people of this region: “There is no weakening of British sovereignty, and that is reflected in how the border is maintained.”

This does not imply that the boundary should be impassable.

Guy Povedano, a wine trader in Gibraltar since 1839, stands in his enormous warehouse, under the shadow of hundreds of barrels of beer. His firm is dependent on visitors and workers from Spain, and he expects that a new deal would secure free movement of people.

“I’d want a border that moves,” he says. “A viable border where we can bring the products in yet maintain some control.” He admits that he wants the best of both worlds.

a young lady sitting in a restaurant or bar
Sharon expresses her fear of more difficult border crossings in the image description.
Sharon and Alex demonstrate how people’s daily lives are inextricably tied to both sides of the border.

Sharon works at a pub in Gibraltar but is originally from La Linea in Spain. Alex, her lover, is in the Royal Navy and is stationed on a ship just off the coast. She is terrified at the prospect of the crossing becoming more difficult.

“It will be a disaster. He needs to go to work. I had to go to work. I need to study. People that have to come to work here will be late, and I will certainly be late. So working and living a regular life would be impossible.”

The talks have no “cliff edge” in theory. In principle, the interim accords reached in 2020, which presently allow for relatively unfettered travel, might easily be extended. However, there is a political reality on the horizon that requires a compromise to be reached quickly.

Spain will elect a new government later this year. The current Socialists are often regarded as being more friendly to Gibraltar. If they are replaced by the Popular Party, which may have the support of the far-right Vox, all goodwill may be lost.

That is why discussions about what a “no-deal” scenario may look like are critical, with Mr Picardo arguing it might provide possibilities. He brings up the pre-Brexit vision of transforming London into “Singapore-on-Thames,” a low-tax, low-regulation business haven.

“Gibraltar is not aiming to become that, but there are chances if you become Singapore-on-Straits, given that you are not in the EU-regulated environment.”

Is that a message to Brussels?

“I’m not here to intimidate or to coax you. I believe that our greatest efforts should be concentrated toward obtaining a treaty on Gibraltar between the United Kingdom and the European Union.”

A macaque in the background of a sunset
The legendary Barbary macaques of Gibraltar may be the only ones who don’t have an opinion on the new accord.
Both parties have agreed that sovereignty over the Rock is not on the table in current discussions, but residents of the British overseas territory remain wary.

Many of them regard their separation from Spain as more essential than any other problem, including the economics.

Principle clashes with practicality, with one potentially losing out. If the circumstance seems similar, it may be.