‘We won’t let smugglers tarnish Gibraltar’s image’

Gibraltar vowed on Tuesday to step up its fight against cigarette smuggling from the British outpost into Spain, a major source of tension with Madrid.

'We won't let smugglers tarnish Gibraltar's image'
Gibraltar has traditionally been considered a den of smugglers by Spain. Photo: Marcos Moreno/AFP

Cigarettes are around 40 percent cheaper in Gibraltar than in Spain due to lower taxes and Madrid blames the British territory for a surge in cigarette smuggling to the Spanish mainland.

Spain in August introduced stringent border checks at its border with Gibraltar, leading to lengthy queues for motorists, in what it said was a move aimed at clamping down on cigarette smuggling.

But Gibraltar argues the stepped up border controls are in retaliation for the installation of an artificial reef in its waters that has prevented Spanish boats from fishing there.

In a New Year message broadcast on Gibraltar public television, Chief Minister Fabian Picardo said the British outpost "would not tolerate unsightly illicit tobacco activity on our beaches or near the frontier".

"I have already given additional powers to customs and Royal Gibraltar Police officers to move people from these areas. More is now being done which will include changes to our Tobacco Act and the setting up of new areas to search people and vehicles trying to exit Gibraltar," he said.

"Because the Gibraltarians are known to be a law-abiding people and we will not allow anyone to come from outside to tarnish our image internationally, however desperate their circumstances," he added.

Gibraltar does not currently inspect vehicles or pedestrians crossing into Spain.

In a letter sent to Britain in November the European Commission recommended improved measures to fight smuggling at Gibraltar's border with Spain. The letter was sent after its inspectors visited the border.

The Commission said at the time that it would review the situation at the border in six months.

Governments on both sides of the border have imposed limits on the amount of tobacco that can be purchased in Gibraltar.

But many people in the Spanish border town of La Linea, where unemployment has reached 40 percent, make a living by selling cigarettes they smuggle in from the British territory.

Spain ceded Gibraltar to Britain in 1713 but has long argued that it should be returned to Spanish sovereignty. London says it will not do so against the wishes of Gibraltarians, who are staunchly pro-British.

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Gibraltar holds referendum on its draconian abortion laws

Gibraltar heads to the polls on Thursday to vote on plans to ease abortion laws which currently carry possible life sentences for offenders, in a referendum delayed for over a year by the coronavirus pandemic.

Gibraltar holds referendum on its draconian abortion laws
A woman wears a t-shirt reading " Gibraltar for Yes!" outside a polling station in Gibraltar, on June 24, 2021. Photo: Jorge Guerrero/AFP

The issue has exposed sharply opposing views within this tiny, normally closely-knit British enclave at the southernmost tip of Spain, which is home to some 32,000 people.

The referendum was initially slated for March 19 2020 but a week ahead of the vote it was postponed as virus cases began spiralling at the start of the pandemic.Except in cases where it would save the mother’s life, abortion is currently banned in Gibraltar on pain of life imprisonment, although such a penalty has not been applied in modern times.

The government is proposing changes to the law to allow abortion where a woman’s mental or physical health is at risk — such as in cases of rape or incest — or when foetuses have fatal physical defects.

Although the changes have already been approved by Gibraltar’s parliament, the referendum will decide whether or not that amended law be brought into force.

Under the changes, a woman would be able to undergo an abortion up to 12 weeks into her pregnancy if her mental or physical health is deemed at risk, or beyond if such damage would be grave and permanent.

There would be no time limit on cases involving fatal foetal anomaly.

Until now, women wanting to have an abortion have had to travel to Spain or to Britain to undergo the procedure.

Chief Minister of Gibraltar Fabian Picardo and his wife Justine Olivero leave a polling station after casting their ballots. Photo: JORGE GUERRERO/AFP

– ‘In Gibraltar’s best interests’ –

Ahead of the vote, both sides have been campaigning hard, with Chief Minister Fabian Picardo and two other party leaders releasing a video urging people to vote “Yes” to the proposed amendment to the crimes act that will regulate abortions in Gibraltar.

“My personal, professional & political opinion on the abortion referendum: it is in #Gibraltar’s best interests to #VoteYes on Thursday 24th June,” Picardo tweeted.

“No” campaigners have also been rallying support with hundreds of people dressed in pink and purple joining a pro-life “Save Babies, vote no” march through the city centre last week, chanting “We vote no!”

On the ballot, voters will be asked: “Should the Crimes (Amendment) Act 2019, that defines the circumstances which would allow abortion in Gibraltar, come into force?”

If the changes are approved, the law is expected to take effect fairly quickly although officials have not yet laid out a timeline.

The proposed changes came after Britain’s Supreme Court ruled in June 2018 that Northern Ireland’s abortion laws, which at the time were almost identical to Gibraltar’s, were incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

“It is therefore clear that if the equivalent law on abortion in Northern Ireland was in breach of the Convention, our identical, archaic law is too,” wrote Picardo in an op-ed in Wednesday’s Gibraltar Chronicle.

“It is our duty to vote to stop this ongoing breach.”

Picardo has said he believed the changes were long overdue and that the plans would be approved “by a very large majority”.