Brexit causes anguish on Gibraltar

With Gibraltar far down the British government's list of priorities, locals are deeply worried about their future, writes sociology professor Andrew Canessa.

Brexit causes anguish on Gibraltar
Fishermen eat on the beach with Queen Elizabeth II projected on the Rock of Gibraltar in background to mark her 90th birthday on April 21st 2016. Photo: AFP

Gibraltar was the first to declare its vote in June’s EU Referendum, returning a 96% vote in favour of Remain. But rather than set a trend for the night, Gibraltarians watched with nothing short of horror as the UK voted to Leave.

Gibraltar joined the European Economic Area with the UK in 1973 and will leave the EU with it. At a little over six square miles, this small territory is utterly dependent on the flow of goods and people across the border with Spain, not only for its prosperity, but for its survival. So Brexit is causing no small amount of concern among residents of what is colloquially known as the Rock.

We have been collecting the life stories of people on both sides of the border for several years in order to trace how a Spanish speaking population with strong kinship and cultural ties to Spain became so identified with Britain and its culture.

We have, to date, interviewed almost 400 people between the ages of 16 to 101 and from all religious, ethnic and economic backgrounds – including a sample from La Línea de la Concepción, the Spanish town on the “other side”.

With the referendum three years into our project, we are in prime position to gauge the reaction.

Shifting identity

The border played a major role in the shift towards Britishness on Gibraltar that created the conditions for economic prosperity as well as providing a safety barrier from Spain which, for much of the 20th century, was politically repressive, if not violent and chaotic.




Britishness on Gibraltar.



At the same time, the border is a bridge as much as a barrier. Many people sought refuge across the border; many others, mostly women, married Gibraltarian men with preferential access to employment in the colony (as well as higher salaries) in order to seek a better life. In more recent decades the border has represented the possibility of escaping the physical and social confines of Gibraltar, as well an economic life line.

With Brexit comes the possibility of this border being closed. It’s difficult to exaggerate the depth of feeling this has provoked in Gibraltarians. As one young woman put it:

It was a massive shock. I was really upset and I started crying. My friend was like: ‘What’s wrong?’ I [replied]: ‘You don’t understand what this means for my people.‘ My little Gibraltar is about to be shafted by Spain. More so than usual.

Their fears appeared to be confirmed on the very morning of the Brexit result when José Manuel García-Margallo, the Spanish foreign minister, said he hoped Brexit would lead to co-sovereignty and that the Spanish flag would soon fly over Gibraltar again.

An opportunity for Spain

There is no question that Spain sees Brexit as its best chance in half a century for gaining sovereignty over Gibraltar and some Gibraltarians are clearly anxious it might very well succeed. As one 20-year-old man put it: “With the whole Brexit thing, it’s kind of like ‘oh! We’re going to be Spanish. We’re going to be Spanish!’”. Our project has traced the way Gibraltarians have become increasingly distanced from Spanish language and culture and very wary of Spain’s political manoeuvrings – so the prospect of “becoming Spanish” is something of an anathema.

In 1969 Spain shut the border to pressure Gibraltarians to accept Spanish sovereignty but the effort backfired. Gibraltarians lost daily contact with Spain and became much closer to Britain and British culture. The border was opened in 1982 as part of the negotiations of Spain’s accession to the EEC but has remained a matter of contention between the UK and Spain.

In 2014, Spain imposed lengthy border queues in protest at an artificial reef created in what Gibraltar sees as its waters. It is widely understood that it was membership of the EU that prevented Spain from closing the border definitively and so the fears of the border closing again are very real. Membership of the EU, after all, is incompatible with closed borders.

Today, Gibraltar’s economy is mainly based on offering financial services to the rest of the EU, which depends on having passporting rights. There is no doubt that Gibraltar is a very wealthy community; there is equally do doubt that this wealth is highly dependent on its association with the UK and the EU for its financial sector and online gambling industry. It is also heavily dependent on labour crossing the border: up to 12,000 workers cross every day from Spain to work in the enclave. Gibraltar’s politicians are rather bullish in saying that Gibraltar can make a success of Brexit but there are huge questions that remain unanswered.

Whereas older Gibraltarians may express a grim sense of resolve at the border closing again, having gone through it once, the younger generation is much less sanguine. A border closure or restrictions today would have a much more dramatic effect and it’s worth noting that young Gibraltarians today have a more cosmopolitan view of the world than their parents. It is perhaps then not surprising that, in a survey of 16 to 18-year-olds conducted in February 2017, three quarters of them said they would consider leaving Gibraltar if the border were shut or difficult to cross.

Gibraltarians are very aware that they are a long way down the British government’s list of concerns when it comes to Brexit negotiations. Spain has said it would veto any special deal for Gibraltar. It is hardly surprising, then, that the Rock’s populace is deeply worried at the consequences of Brexit.

Andrew Canessa, Professor, Department of Sociology , University of Essex

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

After years of campaigns and promises British citizens living abroad finally won the lifelong right to vote in UK general elections in April 2022. But campaigners say more needs to be done to allow all those Britons abroad to be able cast their votes easily.

Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

What’s in the law?

The Elections Act 2022 introduced several changes to the current legislation on electoral participation. Among these, it removed the rule by which British citizens lose their voting rights in the UK if they have lived abroad for more than 15 years

The new rules also abolished the requirement to have been previously registered in the UK electoral roll to become an overseas voter. In addition, the registration in the electoral roll will now last up to three years instead of only one year.

It is estimated that these changes could increase the number of overseas voter registrations by some 3 million. But the way new measures will be applied in practice is still to be defined.

READ ALSO: ‘Mixed feelings’ – British citizens in Europe finally get right to vote for life

Defining the practicalities

Under the new law, Britons living abroad will have to register to vote in the last place they were registered in the UK. This means that people who have never lived in the UK will be ineligible to vote, regardless of how long they have been overseas, while those who left when they were children will be able to use a parent or guardian’s address.

But given that the UK does not require residents to register with local councils, how to prove previous UK residence? “Typical documents accepted as a proof of residence are Council tax or utilities bills, but not everyone will have them or will have kept them in an international move,” says Fiona Godfrey, co-founder of the British in Europe coalition.

Ballot papers are pictured in stacks in a count centre as part of the 2019 UK general election. (Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN / AFP)

Other questions concern how people will effectively cast their ballot. UK citizens overseas will be able to vote by post or by proxy or in person at their polling station if they are in the UK at the time of the election. However, few people are likely to travel to the UK for an election and in the past there have problems and delays with postal voting.

The Electoral Commission has recommended that overseas electors appoint a proxy to vote on their behalf. But who could that be for people who have been away from their constituency for a long time?

New secondary legislation will have to answer these questions, defining how to be included in the electoral roll and how to exercise the voting right in practice.

According to British in Europe, the government should present draft legislation in the first half of the year so that the parliament can adopt it before summer and registrations of overseas voters can start in the autumn.

British in Europe survey

British in Europe are currently running a survey to understand the difficulties UK citizens abroad may face in the registration and voting process, as well as their intention to participate in elections.

The survey asks for instance which documents people can access to prove their previous residence in the UK, what problems they had voting in the past, and if and how they plan to vote in the future.

“We need to get an up-to-date picture of British citizens living around the world and have information to make recommendations to the government, as it prepares secondary legislation,” Godfrey said. “If millions of people will exercise their voting rights, there will be consequences for council registration offices, post office and authorities that will manage the process, among other things” she argued.

The right to vote concerns only UK parliamentary elections and national referendums, not elections in the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, or at local level.

The survey is open to UK citizens living anywhere in the world and is available at this link.