‘Let’s see how it goes’: Gibraltarians wary but relieved after deal

Gibraltarians reacted with relief and caution Friday after Madrid and London reached a deal allowing the territory to become part of Europe's passport-free zone to keep movement fluid on its border with Spain.

'Let's see how it goes': Gibraltarians wary but relieved after deal
Cyclists cross the border from Spain into Gibraltar. Photo: Jorge Guerrero/AFP
Some 15,000 people, mainly Spanish, pour into Gibraltar, a tiny British territory on the southern tip of the Iberian peninsula, from Spain every day to work, accounting for half of its workforce.
Thousands more tourists go through the single checkpoint on the frontier every day, mostly day-trippers from Spain drawn in part by Gibraltar's duty-free shopping.
With a land area of just 6.8 square kilometres (2.6 square miles), Gibraltar must import all of its food. Some 50,000 trucks cross the border every year on the only road linking the territory to Spain.
Without a deal, this flow would have been slowed by tighter checks and more passport stamping once Britain's Brexit transition period ended on December 31, creating a new “hard border” between Gibraltar and the European Union.
The frontier was virtually deserted Friday due to the New Year's Day holiday and pandemic restrictions on the entry of tourists.
“It's good news, it seems like the best way to keep everything moving,” said Oliver Gomez, a 34-year-old actuary, as he walked his dog in Gibraltar's mostly empty marina when asked about the deal.
Under terms of the last-minute accord announced Thursday by Gibraltar and Spain, the tiny territory would become part of the Schengen passport-free zone, which covers 26 European countries (most of the 27 EU members, along with Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Lichtenstein).
Spain would be responsible for managing the Schengen arrangement which would be implemented by Frontex, the agency charged with protecting the EU's external borders.
All the details of the agreement will be settled between Spain and Britain during a six-month transition period.
Border frictions
Some Gibraltarians, however, expressed concern over Spain being given a role in managing the deal.
“We haven't always had the best track record with the Spanish. Let's see how it goes,” said Jeff Saez, a 43-year-old hotel employee while out on a morning bike ride along the marina.
While Spain ceded Gibraltar to Britain in perpetuity in 1713 following a military struggle, Madrid has long wanted it back in a thorny dispute that has for decades caused friction on the frontier.
Tensions peaked in 1969 when the regime of dictator Francisco Franco closed the border, which did not fully reopen until 1985.
In 2013, Spain stepped up its vehicle checks at the border and mulled imposing a crossing fee, triggering months of gridlock amid a dispute over an artificial reef.
Mark Leavesley, a 34-year-old Gibraltar real estate agent, said he believed the territory would adapt well whether there was a border deal or not.
“Gibraltar has proven to be resilient,” he said.
'Nimble economy'
Gibraltar was forced to reinvent its economy after Britain sharply reduced its military presence in the territory in the 1980s, including closing its naval dockyards, a major employer.
Britain's military now accounts for less than ten percent of Gibraltar's GDP, compared to 60 percent in the late 1970s, according to John Fletcher, an economist at Britain's Bournemouth University.
The territory used favourable tax policies to help build up its banking and financial services sectors, which have transformed it into one of the most prosperous regions in Europe.
“It is a really nimble and inventive economy and it can be that way because it is so small it can change quickly,” Fletcher told AFP, describing Gibraltar's economic transformation as “amazing”.
There was relief as well in La Linea, the impoverished Spanish city just across the border from Gibraltar which has long relied on the territory for jobs and business.
Nuria Hernanez, who owns a hardware store in La Linea, estimates that 40 percent of the customers come from Gibraltar.
“Without them there would be nothing here,” she said.

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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”.