Today the British government officially gives notice of the UK’s desire to withdraw from the European Union: the much-famed triggering of Article 50. The difficulties of negotiating the interests of the whole United Kingdom with the remaining 27 member states will soon become apparent, and there are many questions that need answering. I recently wrote about how lots of people in the congregations of our diocese felt that their lives were in limbo – click here. Many concerns have been thrown up by the Brexit vote, and some of these come into sharpest focus in regard to the future status of Gibraltar.
Gibraltar holds special significance for our diocese. It is the location of our Cathedral church which has an historic importance, not just to the people of Gibraltar, but to the Diocese in Europe and the Church of England more generally. As Anglicans, we are a minority faith in Gibraltar, but we contribute actively to the diversity and tolerance that characterises social life on the Rock.
The House of Lords EU Committee of the UK Parliament recently produced a report, entitled ‘Brexit: Gibraltar’, which can be found here. It sets out well the issues facing Gibraltarians, and I recommend reading it. A debate took place, following its publication, in which Bishop Nick Baines asked whether the Government were stress testing the outcomes of leaving the European Union on Gibraltar. His questions can be found here.
The report points out that in the referendum 95.9% of the votes cast in Gibraltar were remain votes, making it by far the strongest vote for remain of any area eligible to vote. Of course, despite this, Gibraltar must leave the EU along with the UK, though probably with even greater impact.
Access to the EU Single Market has given essential underpinning to Gibraltar’s service-based economy. Currently, 10,473 jobs in Gibraltar are held by frontier workers crossing daily into Gibraltar from neighbouring areas of Spain. Those workers represent 40% of the entire workforce. Loss of access to the Single Market and hardening of the border threatens significantly to harm Gibraltar’s economy – with a corresponding effect on the neighbouring region of Spain.
In terms of tourism, 93% of visitors arrive across the road border. The Government of Gibraltar has called the frontier “a vital artery of Gibraltar’s tourism sector.” Restrictions on border crossings will significantly affect this industry.
Gibraltar is a leading ‘bunker’ port (a port which resupplies ships with fuel). This depends on its status within the EU but outside the EU’s VAT jurisdiction, enabling it to offer low-cost, VAT-free fuel. 30% of Gibraltar’s bunker fuel is currently stored in Algeciras, Spain. Uncertainty over movement of labour and provisions would make Gibraltar less attractive to visiting ships and jeopardise its refuelling business.
The UK and Gibraltarian governments will have to face many difficult issues when Britain leaves the EU. The outcomes will, in the words of Gibraltar’s Chief Minister, rely on the “good will and good faith” between Gibraltar and Spain. Whether Spain feels inclined to show that goodwill once its neighbour is no longer an EU member is an open question. It is in both parties’ interests to cooperate, but that is not necessarily how politics works.
Everything that applies to the UK post-Brexit applies with a vengeance in Gibraltar. An already strained border with Spain will now also become a hard border between the EU/Schengen zone and Gibraltar. The effect on the thousands who cross both ways daily for work will be enormous. The potential for Spanish political annoyance will be increased. The casual day trip tourism from Spain into Gibraltar will shrink, affecting business. The importing of fresh produce and essential supplies will be affected – there is virtually no agriculture on the rock. When winds prevent the landing of planes in Gibraltar, as they frequently do, the normal diversion to Malaga may be much more complicated logistically.
I am not suggesting that Gibraltar will come under effective siege as a result of leaving the EU. But it is the belief of many Gibraltarians that their way of life will be significantly changed for the worse. The essentials of life, such as importing fresh produce, may become areas of harsh negotiation. Beyond the politics and economics, the EU is important to many in Gibraltar because it is viewed as a means for people to learn to live together, valuing diversity and creating a peaceful and tolerant society. There are important questions of identity here for people who see themselves as Gibraltarian, British and European.
Gibraltarians are some of the most vulnerable to the effects of Brexit and they are having to leave the EU almost entirely against their will. There is, therefore, an especial moral responsibility on the UK Government for their financial and social wellbeing over the next several years.