For Tiny Gibraltar, There's A Lot At Stake In The 'Brexit' Vote

Apr 12, 2016
Originally published on April 19, 2016 3:56 pm

When Britons vote this summer on whether to exit the European Union, one of the key battlegrounds in what's being called the 'Brexit' will be Gibraltar.

The 2.6-square-mile peninsula at Spain's southern tip is geographically part of the European continent, but has been British territory for more than 300 years. That means its citizens, United Kingdom passport holders, have the right to vote on June 23.

This week, Gibraltar hosted rival rallies by advocates for and against continued EU membership.

Lawmakers from Britain's Conservative Party, which is divided over the issue, and UKIP, which is anti-EU, flew down to Gibraltar from London, to hold a 'Grassroots Out' rally, and lobby locals to vote to leave the EU.

"We've given away our trading rights. Brussels has to negotiate on our behalf, and we have a European court that can overrule our laws," says Andrew Rosindell, a Conservative who chairs parliament's Overseas Territories Group, which includes issues related to Gibraltar.

In the middle of Gibraltar's main Casemates Square, Rosindell found himself in a heated debate with a local real estate agent who favors staying in the EU.

"I think Gibraltar, as a relatively small peninsula, is much better off in the European Union," says the real estate agent, Sammy Armstrong. "It's not being scared of change. It's just that we're stronger with unity, and I think if Britain leaves the EU, it'll weaken all of us."

Gibraltar Parties Favor Staying In EU

Polls show Britons are roughly divided 50-50 over whether to leave the EU, but most in Gibraltar want to stay in. The peninsula's 23,000 eligible voters could tip the scales in a close race.

On Main Street, volunteers for the rival 'Stronger In' campaign urge passersby to register to vote June 23. Fabian Picardo, Gibraltar's chief minister and a member of the local Labour party, wants to stay in — and so do all the main political parties here.

"I think Gibraltarians feel profoundly European. Remember, we live on the European continent. I respect that there are many in the United Kingdom who take a different view, but they are not on the European continent — the UK is an island," Picardo said in an NPR interview at his office. "The only certainty about withdrawing from the EU is uncertainty. As a responsible political leader, all I can ask people to do is bet on the prosperity that we enjoy today."

Spaniards have long wanted to reclaim Gibraltar — ever since Anglo-Dutch forces captured the peninsula in 1704, during the War of Spanish Succession. Nine years later, the Treaty of Utrecht gave it to Britain "in perpetuity." It's been British ever since — complete with UK currency, traditional British fish and chips shops and red telephone booths.

Many Gibraltarians worry that Spain could close their shared border if the UK were no longer part of the EU. In 1969, the Spanish military dictator, Francisco Franco, did just that, isolating Gibraltar on and off for the next 16 years.

But nowadays, thousands of Spaniards commute across that border daily, to work in Gibraltar. They worry they could become cut off from their jobs, if the border were to close.

"It will be a disaster. Because we haven't got a place to work here in Spain," says Juan José Uceda, a member of the Association of Spanish Workers in Gibraltar.

Half of all residents on the Spanish side of the border, in the gritty town of La Línea, are out of work. Up to 10,000 others commute daily to Gibraltar, where the standard of living is much higher.

"When they bring the subject to be voted in the UK, it affects so many people here," Uceda says. "And they cannot vote on what is going to happen to them."

Spain is not allowed to close its border with Gibraltar as long as the territory is part of the EU. But if that changes in June, Spain's acting foreign minister, José Manuel García-Margallo, recently told Spanish radio that he'll launch talks over Gibraltar's sovereignty "the very next day" — something many Gibraltarians interpret as a threat of invasion.

They hear the criticism of the European Union in the Brexit debate. But they also know the EU has been a powerful mediator in their dispute with Spain.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

In June, British voters will decide whether to exit the European Union in the so-called Brexit vote. That vote is also a big deal for people who live on Gibraltar. That rock at the end of Spain's southern tip has been British territory for 300 years. It's also geographically part of the European continent. Lauren Frayer has this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Sentries, (unintelligible).

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: The changing of the guard outside U.K. government headquarters in Gibraltar - citizens here are British and thus will be able to vote in June along with the rest of the U.K. about whether to leave the European Union.

In a square nearby, conservative MP Andrew Rosindell, visiting from London, is lobbying locals to vote to leave.

ANDREW ROSINDELL: We've given away our trading rights. Brussels has to negotiate on our behalf. So we have a European court that can overrule our laws. We can't free trade around the world.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I'd like to know more about that.

ROSINDELL: This is crazy.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I will check that.

ROSINDELL: This is madness.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I am very shocked.

FRAYER: But it's a tough sell for local Gibraltar real estate agent Sammy Armstrong.

SAMMY ARMSTRONG: It's not being scared of change. It's just, we're stronger as a unity.

FRAYER: Polls show Britons are roughly divided 50-50 over whether to leave the EU, but most in Gibraltar want to stay. The peninsula's 23,000 eligible voters could tip the scales in a close race.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: This is for the EU referendum.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: To stay in...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: To stay in - yeah, to stay in the European Union.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Oh, I think...

FRAYER: On Main Street, volunteers for the Stronger In campaign urge passersby to register to vote June 23. Fabian Picardo, Gibraltar's chief minister, wants to stay in, and so do all the main political parties here.

FABIAN PICARDO: I think Gibraltarians feel profoundly European. I mean, remember that we live on the European continent. I respect the fact that there are many in the United Kingdom who take a different view. They are not on the European continent. The United Kingdom is an island.

FRAYER: Spaniards have long wanted to reclaim Gibraltar, and people here worry Spain could close the border if this peninsula were no longer part of the EU. In 1969, the military dictator Francisco Franco did just that, isolating this two-and-a-half square mile rock off and on for the next 16 years.

In a bar over the border in the gritty Spanish town of La Linea, I meet Juan Jose Uceda, who commutes to Gibraltar and worries thousands like him could be cut off from their jobs.

JUAN JOSE UCEDA: It will be a disaster because we haven't got a place to work here in Spain.

FRAYER: Half of all locals on the Spanish side of the border are unemployed. Up to 10,000 others commute daily to Gibraltar. Whether Britain stays in the EU could impact Spanish lives, too, he says.

UCEDA: When they bring the subject to be voted in the U.K., it affects so many people here, and they cannot vote what is going to happen to them.

FRAYER: Spain is not allowed to close its border with Gibraltar as long as the territory is part of the EU. But if that changes in June, Spain's foreign minister says he'll open talks over Gibraltar's sovereignty the very next day, something many Gibraltarians interpret as a threat of invasion. They hear the criticism of the European Union in the Brexit debate, but they also know the EU has been a powerful mediator in their dispute with Spain. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Gibraltar. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.