Brexit dims outlook for both sides of Spain-Gibraltar border

It's morning rush hour at the border between Spain and Gibraltar and virtually all the traffic is flowing from the downtrodden Spanish city of La Linea de la Concepcion into the wealthy British territory.

Brexit dims outlook for both sides of Spain-Gibraltar border

After a quick check of their identity papers, hundreds of people walk briskly across the only runway at Gibraltar's airport to their jobs in the tiny British enclave perched on a rocky outcrop on Spain's southern tip.

Gibraltar has close to full employment and it has long been a lifeline for people who live in the adjacent area of Spain known as “El Campo de Gibraltar”, which has one of the European Union's highest jobless rates.

But when Brexit comes, it could mean tighter controls at what would be a new border between Britain and the European Union which could jeopardise the easy flow of people that has benefited both Gibraltar and “El Campo”.   

“I worry they will demand some sort of work visa. No one knows what will happen,” said Miguel Pereira, 53, who has commuted to a job at a tobacco warehouse in Gibraltar from the adjoining city of La Linea for over three decades.

An electrician by training, the married father of two said he would try to find work in the same field in La Linea if working in Gibraltar becomes unviable. But this would be a challenge.

The city has a jobless rate of just over 31 percent. It has been dubbed the “drug capital of Spain” because of the gangs that operate there, employing jobless youths to bring loads of hashish in from nearby Morocco on high-speed boats.

'Impossible to function'

Pereira is one of roughly 14,000 so-called “frontier workers” who make the crossing daily from Spain to work, mainly in shops, hotels and the territory's dynamic financial services and online gaming sectors.

While the majority are Spanish, this labour force takes in 59 other nationalities, including some 2,500 Britons who are attracted by the lower cost of housing in Spain.

These so-called “frontier workers” account for at least half of the workforce of Gibraltar, which is just half the size of London's smallest borough of Kensington and Chelsea and is home to around 32,000 people.

“It's literally impossible to come up with additional staff to cover all the jobs in Gibraltar that would be affected if frontier workers wouldn't be able to come,” said Christopher Wall, the director of Alimentana, a food wholesaler in Gibraltar.

The company employs 18 people, half of them “frontier workers”.

“In our sector in particular, right across the retail and wholesale sector, it would be almost impossible to function in the short term,” Wall added.   

Some firms are mulling allowing people to work from home, or provide more flexible hours, in case of problems getting across the border, said Julian Byrne, the chairman of the Gibraltar Federation of Small Businesses, which represents around 300 local firms.

Julian Byrne, chairman of the Gibraltar Federation of Small Businesses. Photo by Jorege Guerrero / AFP 

 “Some businesses can do it, some can't, it depends what industry you are in,” he said at the modern offices of the web design business he runs.

'There is nothing' 

Madrid and London have reached a preliminary deal over Gibraltar but final approval will depend on negotiations in Brussels which are currently stalled.   

While Spain's current socialist government has vowed to protect the rights of cross-border workers, previous Spanish administrations have on occasion closed the border to exert pressure on Gibraltar, which has been under British control since 1713 but Madrid has long wanted it back.

The fallout from Brexit has already started to be felt by shops and businesses in La Linea that rely on clients from Gibraltar.   

They complain of a drop in sales due to the drop in the value of the pound since Britain voted to leave the EU in 2016.   

The weaker pound has also hit the wallets of “frontier workers”, who now earn less once their pay is converted to euros.   

Eladio Perez Diaz, 59, who runs an auto body shop in La Linea (pictured above), said his three step-daughters have all recently quit their service sector jobs in Gibraltar and plan to move to London because they have seen their salaries drop to around 900 euros from roughly 1,400 euros.

He said he would “almost certainly” have to close his body shop and move abroad as well if Brexit leads to delays in crossing the frontier since about two-thirds of his business comes from customers from Gibraltar.

“There are no jobs in La Linea, there is nothing,” he said as he stood at the entrance to the body shop located on the ground floor of an apartment block with chipped paint on the walls.

By AFP's Daniel Silva 

OPINION: It's time to ring-fence citizens rights before Brexit


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.