As the United Kingdom and the European Union continue negotiations over the terms of their post-Brexit relationship, the fate of Gibraltar, a British Overseas Territory located on the southern coast of Spain, remains a sticking point in the talks. Gibraltar has managed to keep its EU-border for now; but anxiety beckons for the 34,000 Gibraltarians that call the peninsula home.
Throughout the Brexit negotiations, the EU has insisted on including Gibraltar in any agreement reached with the UK, while the UK maintains that Gibraltar's status is a matter for bilateral talks between London and Madrid. This has led to a tense standoff, with Spain threatening to veto any deal that does not take into account its claims to sovereignty over the territory.
Gibraltar, which has been under British control since 1713, is a major economic hub, with a large port and airport that serve as a gateway to Africa and the Mediterranean. It also has significant strategic importance, as it sits at the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea and controls access to the Atlantic Ocean.
The UK's decision to leave the EU raised many concerns about the future of Gibraltar, with many residents worried about the potential impact on trade, travel, and security. The territory is heavily dependent on the EU for its economy, with over 90% of its trade being conducted with the EU.
Before the pandemic, 28,000 people crossed the border every day, the EU referendum vote ended free moment and suddenly jeopardised the lives of those on the Rock. After the Brexit announcement, residents of the Rock anxiously awaited a worst-case scenario of a hard Brexit on the EU’s external border and citizens risked being unable to cross the border to work the next day. During the Brexit transition period however, British and Spanish authorities reached an agreement in principle with minutes to spare of the deadline on December 31st, 2020.
The agreement avoided a hard border and effectively allowed Gibraltar to remain in the Schengen area – allowing free movement of travel with minimal checks for Gibraltarians, whilst other British citizens were subject to passport controls. Spain agreed that while that agreement in principle was in effect, Spain would act as a guarantor for Gibraltar on behalf of the EU, essentially making Spain Gibraltar’s sponsor. The Spanish foreign minister claimed that it would take 6 months to transform the temporary agreement into a fully-fledged treaty, signed by both nations.
After 2 years involving 11 rounds of negotiations, the treaty is still not complete. Meanwhile, the Spanish government ended reciprocal healthcare for Gibraltarians travelling to Spain a year earlier than planned. Citizens of Gibraltar no longer have access to free health care in Spain as residents must ensure they have appropriate health insurance when travelling to Spain, irrespective of duration.
A second major issue developed over passport control. Spain believed this role should be taken upon them as they were sponsoring the territory. This however risked incurring debate over Gibraltar’s sovereignty. The UK prefers the employment of Frontex - the EU border force to solve this issue. The centuries old debate over Gibraltar still spurs many emotions on both sides of the border.
The government of Gibraltar even filed a complaint in December 2019 with Spanish prosecutors against the right-wing populist party VOX – Spanish nationalists gaining high standings in polls that have advocated for Gibraltar to return to Spain. The complaint condemned the party’s positions which created “an atmosphere of hatred among Spaniards towards Gibraltarians”.
In addition, the Government has asked the Spanish prosecutors to investigate the online group, “Gibraltar: Español”, a social media group which regularly disseminates unjustified allegations against Gibraltar and which has recently been an avid echo-chamber for the anti-Gibraltarian propaganda of VOX.
Sovereignty is a highly politicised subject in the region as many citizens in Gibraltar likewise remind Spain of its overseas territorial exclaves in Morocco: Ceuta and Melilla, referred to as “Plazas de soberanía” – places of sovereignty. Much is said about Spain’s hypocrisy in the matter of being the last European nation still in Africa, nevertheless; geopolitics have indeed proved to provoke rocky relationships.
In the end, the future of Gibraltar will likely hinge on the ability of the UK and EU to reach a compromise that takes into account the unique circumstances of this small but strategically important territory.