Opinion: the possibility of Gibraltar being left out of a transition deal would mean limbo in 2019, sending Gibraltar and the neighbouring Spanish region into economic decline

The idea of Britain being "an island nation" clearly resonates with Brexiteers.

This ignores political geography. By now, we're well aware of the issues posed by the UK's 500km land border with Ireland.

Yet, close to the southern-most point of the Iberian Peninsula lies Gibraltar, a tiny 6.5 sq km headland with a 1.2km border with Spain. 

Though Northern Ireland is an integral part of the UK constitutionally, Gibraltar is not. But it's still a British Territory of which London has constitutional responsibility.

Gibraltar is a peninsula of Spain, at the eastern entrance to the only natural sea route in and out of the Mediterranean

But things are never that simple. The highest remain vote – of 96 percent – came from Gibraltar. In 2002, 99 percent of Gibraltar's voters rejected the idea of joint sovereignty between Britain and Spain.

And though Gibraltar has a population of only 34,500 people, around 12 million visitors cross the border with Spain annually. About 14,000 workers cross daily – 50 percent are Spanish and the other 50 percent are either British or come from other EU countries. 

Gibraltar is a peninsula of Spain, at the eastern entrance to the only natural sea route in and out of the Mediterranean – one of the three most geostrategic choke-points in the world for oil, commercial and military flows.

The Rock of Gibraltar, which dominates the territory's landscape, has 50km of road within it, housing a NATO base. The rock is joined to Spain by a land-neck, with no natural water sources or agricultural land.

During the 1969–85 border closure, before Spain joined the EU, Morocco – 17km away – became Gibraltar’s source of food and water. 

The Rock of Gibraltar dominates the territory's landscape

Spain is in the Schengen Area with few internal border checks, while the UK and Gibraltar remain outside. The UK retains responsibility for Gibraltar–EU affairs in the Gibraltar Constitution.

In it, Gibraltarians wanted "decolonization" of UK political structures, and a "democratic" relationship with Britain, but not the kind of decolonization of the territory that would give sovereignty to Spain.

The constitution promotes cultural identity and promotes the possibility of nationhood if changes in UK policy were to occur.

Spain originally ceded Gibraltar to Britain under the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713. The only part of the treaty that Britain hasn't reneged on is the section that outlines what would happen if it decided to renounce sovereignty: Spain would get first dibs.

After another furore, a statement from Spain's foreign minister sought to calm tensions

The interactions between Gibraltar and the neighbouring Campo de Gibraltar are symbiotic. Gibraltar employment and trade represents around 25 percent of the county's GDP. Unions and businesses want a soft border considering the high unemployment in the county.

Gibraltar benefits from shipping, offshore banking, and by acting as a conference centre. Low tax rates attract foreign investment. Major sources of economic growth come from the financial sectors (30 percent), tourism (30 percent), shipping (25 percent), and telecommunications, e-commerce, and e-gaming (15 percent).

In 2017, Spain requested a bilateral deal with the UK, including an agreement that would have seen both countries jointly manage Gibraltar's airport.

After another furore, a statement from Spain's foreign minister sought to calm tensions: "Sovereignty is something we aspire to, that we are not renouncing, but in these negotiations it is not the issue".

In 2016, Spain won a veto for any future UK-EU deal applying to Gibraltar. Britain insists Gibraltar must leave the bloc on the same terms as the UK. 

Gibraltar’s small area and population means that the international community are unlikely to support the creation of an independent micro-state

In 2018, the British Defence Secretary suggested that the UK is ready to use military force to defend Gibraltar.

A former Conservative leader stated that Theresa May would defend Gibraltar as Margaret Thatcher had, sending troops to war with Argentina over the Falklands. This was rejected by sections of the establishment, aware of historical legacies.

Historical realities 

In 1704, Anglo-Dutch forces took Gibraltar in the context of the Spanish Wars of Succession.

After the war, British forces remained, with the "Rock, castle and fortifications" ceded to England. No maps were included, something that has caused disputes ever since.

Gibraltar was a Crown Colony from 1830 to 1981 and was listed by the UN Decolonization Committee in 1946. Under the 1981 British Nationality Act, it became an Overseas Territory. In 1950, a legislative town council was created, but the colony remained under the control of the British Governor.

Some 99.6 percent voted to retain links with the UK in a British-sponsored referendum in 1967 that was condemned by the United Nation's General Assembly.

Watch: RTÉ News reports on the row that erupted over the post-Brexit future of Gibraltar.

The 1969 UK Constitution Order stated: "Her Majesty's government will never enter into negotiations under which the people of Gibraltar would pass under the sovereignty of another state against their democratically expressed wishes."

A "House of Assembly" became the Parliament in 2006. In 2002, Gibraltarians were granted full British citizenship after the refusal of joint-sovereignty or autonomous regional status within Spain. 

Gibraltar’s small area and population means that the international community are unlikely to support the creation of an independent micro-state in this geostrategic location, which links Malta, Cyprus, and the Suez canal to the Arabian peninsula.

The strait remains vital in security for the USA and Middle East and North African allies, including Israel.

Spain claims the land on which Gibraltar's airport is built is not British

Gibraltar and Brexit

UK cross-party consensus exists on Gibraltar’s right to self-determination. The possibility of Gibraltar being left out of a transition deal would mean limbo in 2019, sending Gibraltar and the neighbouring Spanish region into economic decline.

Gibraltar contests Spain’s claim that the land on which the airport is built is not British.

Spain argues that this territory is distinct from the Gibraltar proper ceded in 1713, and that the land – and Gibraltar's seaward extensions – were taken by creeping jurisdiction.

Citizens who take EU achievements for granted must remain vigilant of opportunistic politicians

Gibraltar's airport could indeed cater for both Gibraltar and Spain as agreed in 2006. Gibraltar spent £80m building a terminal which, if Spain completes an access-portal, would allow entrance from the Spanish side.

Gibraltar has warned it cannot accept any threats woven into UK legislation. 

The European Project promotes integrating economies to avoid conflict, for a prosperous democratic Europe.

Like with Germany and France, interstate violence has become essentially unthinkable.

In EU areas, like in Northern Ireland and in the Balkan states, significant progress has been made as a result.

Citizens who take EU achievements for granted must remain vigilant of opportunistic politicians, populist rhetoric, and the fake news that offers one-dimensional answers to the problems of our day.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.