How Gibraltar became the last frontier of Brexit

A Spanish election victory for conservatives could spell disaster for UK-Spain sovereignty deal over the ‘Rock’

gibraltar british overseas territory over the water
In 2016 96% of Britons living in Gibraltar voted to remain in the EU
(Image credit: Pola Damonte/Getty Images)

Talks over the status of Gibraltar, its relationship with the EU and its land border arrangement with Spain have stalled as long-term tussles over the sovereignty of the British overseas territory have flared up.

Downing Street has dismissed Spain’s demand to oversee control of Gibraltar’s airport, which is technically on an RAF base despite the runway lying on “the narrow isthmus of land between the Rock [Gibraltar] and the Spanish frontier”, said The New European.

Control over who flies in and out has been “a bone of contention”, and the facility is managed by Spain, Gibraltar and the UK under the 2006 Córdoba Agreement. But with the UK and Gibraltar now outside the EU, that arrangement “becomes additionally complex”, said the paper.

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Time is running out for an agreement to be reached on Gibraltar’s relationship with the EU and its potential inclusion in the Schengen common travel area. Next month’s snap Spanish elections give the issue “an extra edge”, said the Daily Mail. The polls increasingly predict a clear swing to the right, which takes a far harder line on Gibraltar than the incumbent, socialist-led left-wing coalition.

What is the issue?

Since the UK voted to leave the EU in 2016, the “Rock” – which voted 96% to remain – has been “in a state of nervous limbo”, said The New European.

Seven years on from the referendum, the 35,000 or so inhabitants of Gibraltar, who describe themselves as British and who vehemently rejected a joint sovereignty plan with Spain in 2002, “still have no idea what their future relationship with the EU will be”, said the newspaper.

The territory was not included in the UK-EU post-Brexit trade deal, and was left outside the customs union. A temporary “pre-deal” arrangement was introduced in 2020, which effectively allowed freedom of movement at the Spain-Gibraltar border to avoid disruption, while letting Gibraltar remain a British territory.

Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary at the time, called the deal a “political framework” to form the basis of a future treaty with the EU. But that temporary arrangement “could be rescinded at any time”, said The Times.

For about a year, talks have been continuing to establish a common travel area between Gibraltar and the EU’s Schengen zone, effectively making it a de facto Schengen member, which would remove the need for most controls at the border.

This is vital for Gibraltar’s economy, said the Financial Times. The Rock is “as wealthy as it is cramped”: a “freakishly overdeveloped tiny place not even 3 square miles in size” that relies on 15,400 cross-border commuters from Spain to “double the size of its workforce every day”. Without the workers, the economy “would grind to a halt”.

No agreement would mean a hard border between Gibraltar and Spain, which could subject workers to long delays at one of only two entry points along a 1.2km border, for vehicles and pedestrians. It would also wreak havoc on trade, as Gibraltar imports almost all of its goods.

The EU, the UK, Gibraltar and Spain have all suggested a deal is close, but in May, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s ruling Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), and the left-wing coalition it leads, was trounced in local and regional elections, while the centre-right Partido Popular (PP) and far-right Vox party made astonishing gains.

The centre-left coalition that had lowered tensions with Gibraltar now looks in serious peril in this month’s general election. Meanwhile, the Spanish right “uses Gibraltar as a whack-a-mole for energising a nationalist audience”, said Jacobin.

What are the two sides?

In principle, Spain and Gibraltar agree on a need for smooth cross-border relations, said the FT. But “bigger matters are at play”.

Spain refuses to recognise British sovereignty of the territory, which was originally ceded to the UK “in perpetuity” in the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713.

Spain’s official position, both on the left and right, has always been that the British overseas territory belongs to Spain. Successive conservative governments have attempted to take at least partial control of the Rock.

The UK, meanwhile, relies on Gibraltar as a gateway to both the Mediterranean and Atlantic, located in a crucial shipping lane.

Now, said the Daily Mail, “there appears to be a standoff” over the Spanish proposal about Gibraltar’s airport, which would effectively allow Spain jurisdiction.

That is “not something that Gibraltar can tolerate”, Vice-Admiral Sir David Steel, the governor of Gibraltar, told The Times.

British diplomats accused the Spanish government of “making unacceptable demands”, said The Times. The UK would not allow anything that would “compromise sovereignty” of the British overseas territory, said Rishi Sunak’s spokesperson.

Spain claimed the treaty was ready to sign and that the UK and Gibraltar were the obstruction, with the UK “quibbling” over small details of a treaty that would actually recognise UK sovereignty, said the paper.

What is the likely outcome?

If the July election results mean the conservative PP party must rely on a coalition with the hard-right Vox to form a parliamentary majority, as the polls suggest, “there will be even more belligerence” over Gibraltar, said the FT. For Vox, “Gibraltar is visceral”.

In July 2021, the general secretary of Vox, Macarena Olona, called Gibraltar a “pirate cave”, and its leader, chief minister Fabian Picardo, “the biggest pirate at the helm”, said The New European. Vox leader Santiago Abascal has said any deal with the UK would have to surrender Gibraltarian sovereignty to Spain.

If a PP-led government rejects the negotiations and the current arrangement, Gibraltar would be left outside the EU’s Schengen zone with a hard border. That would be a “catastrophe”, John Isola, head of Gibraltar’s chamber of commerce, told The Times.

“We now have a very narrow window to get a deal over the line,” The Times quotes a British diplomat as saying. “It is possible, but we are not optimistic. There are certain red lines which we are not prepared to compromise over.”

If Vox comes to power, a Spanish official told the paper, “the deal is as good as dead”.

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