Gibraltar fears Spain will use Brexit to bolster sovereignty claim

With only 23,000 eligible voters, country is unlikely to tip scales of UK’s referendum

“I’m going to vote to remain within the EU, but I’m doing so with gritted teeth,” says Joe García as he looks ahead to the UK’s June 23rd ‘Brexit’ referendum.

This retired businessman is speaking in the garden of a pub just off Gibraltar's Main Street, the road running through the British territory's commercial heart. If it wasn't for the heat and the huge Gibraltar Rock towering above, this could be just another British small town.

In the pub, English ale and fish 'n' chips are served and just around the corner are branches of Marks & Spencer and NatWest bank. Every hour or so, British soldiers change the guard outside the government's headquarters, a reminder that these seven square kilometres perched on a peninsula overlooking the Mediterranean Sea have belonged to the United Kingdom for three centuries.

But just a couple of kilometres away is Spain, which disputes Britain's ownership of Gibraltar and is the cause of both García's misgivings about the EU and his justification for remaining within it.


“I don’t really want to belong to a club where Spain is a member,” he says.

“[But] I think the majority of my fellow Gibraltarians will vote to remain within the EU, purely because the EU defends us, stopping Spain from overwhelming us.”

García's prediction appears to be correct. A poll by the Gibraltar Chronicle newspaper showed that 88 per cent of the territory's residents will vote to remain. Few parts of Britain are likely to deliver such an overwhelming verdict, but then Gibraltar is unlike the rest of Britain.

“We’re culturally more European than, say, someone in Newcastle or Carlisle,” García explains. “We have a different viewpoint, a different worldview, from our fellow British subjects.”

It’s a worldview that has been shaped in great part by Gibraltar’s neighbour. British ownership of the Rock dates back to 1713, but Spain insists that the territory was taken by force and is a remnant of the colonial era. Madrid frequently reminds Gibraltarians – and the UK – that it would like to reclaim the territory: between 1969 and 1982 Spain implemented a blockade which made life and business extremely difficult for Gibraltar.

More recently, when the Rock’s sovereignty issue has flared up again, Madrid has introduced stringent security checks for cars entering the territory, causing massive queues at the border.

The UK’s EU referendum has again brought the relationship with Spain into the spotlight for Gibraltarians. In March, Spain’s acting foreign minister,

José Manuel García-Margallo, said that in the event of a Brexit, his government would start “talking about Gibraltar the very next day”.

"Essentially what people are concerned about is that Spain might seek to use a Brexit to gain traction in its sovereignty claim," says Brian Reyes, editor of the Gibraltar Chronicle.

“There are a lot of people here who would have deep reservations about the EU for all the same reasons that people in Britain and across the EU have reservations about the EU,” he adds. “But because of the very specific, peculiar circumstances that we have here, because, primarily, of the Spanish dimension, when people get into that voting booth they will look at their ballot paper and tick ‘remain’.”

Gibraltar has thrived in recent years. It receives millions of tourists each year while its financial services, online gaming and maritime industry all flourish in a low-tax climate. Although the political tensions with Spain appear to be mobilising most Gibraltarians, the international nature of this tiny territory’s economic model makes its EU membership important for financial reasons.

"The single European market of 520 million people is a very important characteristic to us of what the EU offers, because of course, we're a very small place, we're 30,000 people," says Fabian Picardo, leader of Gibraltar's Socialist Labour Party and chief minister of the territory.

Firmly in the “remain” camp, Picardo has in the past spoken out against what he claims has been unreasonable Spanish political pressure on the Rock. However, he is also keen to underline the significance of the lack of trade barriers for the territory, explaining that “our economic model, our prosperity today depends on having access to that single market.”

With only 23,000 eligible voters, Gibraltar is unlikely to tip the scales of the upcoming referendum. However, few parts of the UK, if any, feel as strongly about the impact of a Brexit on their lives as this Mediterranean anomaly.