A rock and a hard place?
It was the first result to come in on June 23, 2016. 19,322 voted in favour of remaining in the European Union and just 823 in favour of leaving. Of course, it was always to be expected that Gibraltar would vote differently to the rest of the UK. It is, after all, possible that the tiny peninsula, often referred to as “The Rock”, will be affected far more by Brexit than the rest of the UK.
The Rock was first transferred officially to the UK as part of the Treaty of Utrecht signed in 1713 and in the ensuing 305 years has remained British. This; however, has by no means settled the issue of Gibraltar’s sovereignty in the eyes of the Spanish, who have endlessly claimed sovereignty ever since.
Under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, the official position of Spain was that Gibraltar was part of Spain and should be returned to be operated under Spanish jurisdiction. Franco severely restricted movement between Gibraltar and Spain, in an attempt to force a change. The United Kingdom’s response to the measure was to hold a referendum on sovereignty of the peninsula. The result was resounding, with less than 0.5 percent voting to transfer to Spanish sovereignty. After this, the border remained closed until 1985. A second referendum, held in 2002, around whether Gibraltarians would want joint sovereignty with Spain led to a similar result, this time with almost 99 percent voting to remain solely under British control. Despite this, as soon as the Brexit result came in, the Spanish government called for joint sovereignty of the Rock.
Such a dispute over territorial claims between two nations may be expected to leave relations in tatters. This has not been the case though. Both Spain and the UK are members of NATO and the OECD. Moreover, Spain invests more into the UK than it does to any other country, and the UK is the second largest investor into Spain. Despite all the rhetoric then, it seems that relations between the two nations are actually fairly strong and positive.
Can this last into the future though? With the UK leaving the EU, the nature of Gibraltar’s existence may have to change quite dramatically. This would not be preferable for the people of Gibraltar or the people of Spain though. It is part of the reason why Gibraltar was always agreed to be left out of negotiations with the EU, and why there was such anger in Spain when it was originally included in the Brexit deal.
It does not make sense for the same rules to apply in Gibraltar as in the rest of the UK for reasons of geography, individuals lives and behaviour. The Spanish region of La Linea, which has an unemployment rate of 35%, borders Gibraltar and over 10,000 of its residents cross the border every day to work in Gibraltar. This means that no matter the rules that apply to the rest of the UK, Gibraltar needs to retain a relatively open border. If not, the 10,000 that work in Gibraltar from Spain are likely to lose their jobs and Gibraltar itself will experience economic woes without an adequate number of people to fill the newly available jobs.
Therefore, if the UK wants to retain the support it currently has within the peninsula, it will need to reach an agreement to allow easy travel over the border. This is highly likely to be agreed upon due to the strategic position of Gibraltar, for it allows Royal Navy to both control access to the Mediterranean and keep it’s submarines at the ready in the depths beside “The Rock”. Largely for this reason, the UK would never want to lose Gibraltar.
Strong economic ties and cooperation between the two nations on foreign policy have, until this point, avoided any major conflict over the issue of Gibraltar. While these ties remain, and it seems that they will, it’s doubtful that the issue of Gibraltar’s sovereignty will ever be more than patriotic rhetoric from both sides. Rhetoric and reality then are two very separate things.