Former BBC correspondent Nick Higham visits the Rock ahead of his piece for BBC Radio 4 programme, ‘From Our Own Correspondent’, in which he discusses all things Gibraltar and Brexit. Here, Nick reveals his thoughts on Gibraltar, as well as those of some of our own.
As a first time visitor to Gibraltar I was at sea. What was this place where the shops were British but the buildings looked Mediterranean? Where the local branch of Mothercare boasted a delicate wrought iron balcony that might have been in Majorca? Where people spoke English and Spanish (or was it Llanito
) more or less interchangeably? Where you knew you were abroad, yet the fish and chip shops and police uniforms belonged in an English seaside resort?
It started to make sense when I discovered the Edinburgh Estate on Queensway Road, formerly married quarters for British military personnel.
Once one of Britain’s most important overseas garrisons, Gibraltar is no longer an armed camp. The airport is run by the RAF but there are no planes; the dockyard is run by the Royal Navy, but there are no ships. The squaddies and the tars have gone, and the quarters built to house them are now surplus to requirements. So the Edinburgh Estate has been turned into government-owned social housing.
And under the archway at the entrance were a series of plaques commemorating distinguished 20th century Gibraltarians, whose names told a story. Azagury, Bashery, Bruzon, Creswell, Davis, Delf, Duarte, Fava, Gomez, Lagares, Mania, Mascarenhas, Mifsud, Mosquera, Noguera, Olivero, Thomson: the names were British, Portuguese, Maltese, Genoan, North African, Jewish – as well as Spanish.
It was then that I realised quite what a melting pot British-ruled Gibraltar has always been… and why Gibraltarians don’t want to be part of Spain. It’s because they’re not Spanish. You may think that blindingly obvious: to someone from distant Britain it came as a revelation.
I was in Gibraltar at an interesting moment. Negotiations over Britain’s withdrawal agreement from the EU were reaching a climax. Gibraltar too would be leaving the EU, against the wishes of 96 per cent of its people, and Gibraltar’s position was set out in a special protocol to the agreement.
I thought a piece for my old employers at the BBC might be timely, looking at how Gibraltarians view Brexit and what it might mean for this tiny territory which, like Northern Ireland, has a UK land border with the EU. So I bid for an interview with the chief minister, Fabian Picardo, and was granted an audience. He was upbeat. Negotiations over the protocol had gone well. There had been fears that Madrid would try to use the Brexit negotiation as leverage to win concessions from the UK on Gibraltar’s sovereignty, but apparently that hadn’t happened.
Spain had not tried to progress its case on what Picardo (a lawyer by profession) referred to as “sovereignty simpliciter”. Instead there had been fruitful discussion of issues which Spain and Gibraltar don’t usually talk about: the environment, exchanging information on tax, police and customs co-operation. He himself had led the negotiations and indeed “for the first time in history” there had been bilateral talks between Gibraltar and Spain with no-one from the UK in the room.
I said I supposed that dealing with a left-wing government in Madrid made things easier – they would after all be conscious that La Linea, with some of the highest unemployment in Spain and plenty of socialist voters, was heavily dependent on the Rock. He agreed, but surprised me by saying that the improvement in relations had first come under the previous administration. He revealed that he had met the foreign minister in the Partido Popular government, Alfonso Dastis, by chance in London. “We must talk,” he had said – and some time later Dastis had taken him up on the suggestion.
It was all tremendously positive. So I went off to talk to other Gibraltarians. They told me about the day-to-day importance for the territory of a fluid border across which goods and people flowed smoothly.
I was told about the truckloads of foodstuffs and other essentials that come across each day; and about how dependent Gibraltar was on the 13,000 people who cross to work, most in service jobs. I was also told about the advantages to Gibraltar of being inside the EU single market but outside the customs union, with no VAT and a three per cent tariff on luxury goods. Perfumes sell on Main Street as a result for prices comparable to airport duty free shops. One Main Street trader impressed on me the importance of maintaining that competitive advantage, and pointed me to the low-tax regime operated by Spain in the Canary Islands as a possible model for Gibraltar in the future.
We talked of what might happen if, heaven forfend, negotiations with the EU collapsed and the UK (and therefore Gibraltar) left Europe with No Deal. I wanted to know if Gibraltar could survive a border closure, and I was told it could. Fabian Picardo said he was confident there would be sufficient foodstuffs (though less confident about prescription drugs), and that “all systems are in place for a very hard Brexit indeed.”
Gibraltar had after all survived more than 15 years between 1969 and 1985 when there was no cross-border road traffic at all. The closure of the border had led not only to something of a siege economy but also to a way of life remarkable both for its closeness and its suffocating narrowness. No-one (including the chief minister) said they wanted to go back to a time when teenagers drove round and round the Rock at weekends just for something to do.
Older Gibraltarians suggested people would be willing to make sacrifices if the border were closed. Younger Gibraltarians said they would rather leave than face the prospect of being indefinitely caged in. But we were talking hypothetically – or so I thought, until I checked the news at the end of the day and discovered that shortly after my meeting with the chief minister there had been rumblings from Spain.
The government in Madrid had decided on a little patriotic showboating in the run-up to regional elections in Andalusia, and had belatedly taken a hard line on Gibraltar. They were threatening to block the UK’s withdrawal agreement if they didn’t win concessions. The Brits (and the European Commission in Brussels, desperate not to see the text of its hard-won agreement unravel) were resisting. Tension rose as the week wore on.
I wrote my piece for the BBC… and then rewrote it, as it began to look distinctly possible that there might be no agreement. In the end the crisis was resolved by an exchange of letters just a couple of hours. The Spanish side claimed a significant concession; the Brits claimed they were merely restating the status quo.
The incident illustrated something else which as an outsider I had not fully appreciated: how much influence Spain wields in the affairs of the territory, and how nervous that makes Gibraltarians feel. More than one Gibraltarian told me that people might be less suspicious of Spain if it took a softer line, and stopped making life difficult for the Rock by imposing periodic delays at the border. They might even be willing to discuss sovereignty. As it is, I fear they see Spain as a bully, and the grandstanding over the withdrawal agreement will merely have reinforced that.
In any case, I’m not so sure that even 30 years of unfailing accommodation by Spain could undermine Gibraltarians’ attachment to their own sovereignty. After all, we in the UK have had 45 years to get used to the idea of being Europeans. If Brexit proves anything, it is that half of us still aren’t convinced.
BY NICK HIGHAM