By Phil Hoad
Fifty years since Gibraltar voted 99.64% to stay British, sovereignty is suddenly back on the agenda. But the Rock has problems beyond Brexit
With Brexit negotiations currently in a quagmire, those holding fast to the Rock of Gibraltar have had a chance to breathe these last few months. April saw our tabloids raise the very 16th-century idea of Anglo-Spanish war after the EU confirmed a veto for Spain in discussions about Gibraltar’s post-Brexit status. The spat died down – but the 50th anniversary this weekend of the 1967 referendum, in which 99.64% of Gibraltarians voted to stay British, brings the question of sovereignty bobbing to the surface again. With 30,000 crammed around the promontory, it remains a British overseas territory; self-governing and not part of the UK, but ceding responsibility for defence and foreign affairs to London. Spain has long demanded its return, but Brexit added a new twist down on the Costa del Brit: 96% of citizens voted Remain.
Between a rock …
Despite the pro-EU feeling, Gibraltar has resolved to stand with the UK. But – aside from strengthening Spain’s claim on the 7km2 outcrop – Brexit brings other complications. Early suggestions were that the Spanish government may use negotiations to attack the tax-haven status that has made Gibraltar a centre for banking, insurance, gambling and online gaming; an “unjustified privilege”, in its eyes. The status of Gibraltar airport – awkwardly spanning the isthmus behind the Rock that Spain claims is not subject to the treaty granting Britain sovereignty – is another sticking point. The fear is that, if Brexit turns nasty, Spain might decide to shut the border. Not all locals love the EU, but it has been a buffer against headstrong politics. As Gibraltar chief minister Fabian Picardo recently said: “It was only in the negotiations for the Spanish to access the then European Economic Community that Spain finally opened the frontier. We see the EU as a guarantor of the freedom of movement of people.”
Gibraltar in numbers …
426m – height of the Rock.
0.6 – banks per 1,000 people, the fifth highest per capita rate in the world.
110 – goals conceded by Gibraltar’s national football team since being granted Uefa membership in 2013.
230 – Barbary macaques on the Rock, Europe’s only wild monkey population. The legend is that Gibraltar will remain British as long as they remain.
… and pictures
From the great siege to Charles’n’Di’s honeymoon, here are Gibraltar’s greatest hits from the last 300 years.
History in 100 words
Its position on the northern tip of the 14km strait between Europe and Africa has made Gibraltar one of the most fought-over scraps of land in the world. It was dubbed Jabal Tariq – corrupted into the current name – when the Umayyad Moors seized it in 711. The kingdom of Castile annexed it for good in 1462, and it remained Spanish until 1704, when an Anglo-Dutch fleet bombarded the garrison into submission during the war of Spanish succession. The treaties of Utrecht rubber-stamped English ownership nine years later; Spain has spent the last three centuries trying to get Gibraltar back. Three sieges, Franco closing the border and diplomacy in the era of decolonisation have all been fruitless. The Gibraltarians rejected a second referendum – with sovereignty-sharing on the table – by close to 99% in 2002.
Fellow Union Jack icon James Bond careers down the Rock to usher in the Timothy Dalton era in 1987’s The Living Daylights.
The unique brand of Spanglish – with added Genoese, Hebrew, Maltese and Portuguese – spoken in the territory is called Llanito. Learn about its “covert prestige” in this documentary.
What everyone’s talking about
The new ATM that accepts bitcoin in the World Trade Center Gibraltar’s reception area – though you’d have to put in a fair amount of conventional wedge (£3,562 at time of writing) to get a whole bitcoin back. Few real-world shops accept bitcoin yet, but the territory is intent on being ahead of the curve with cryptocurrency – despite some seeing it as a challenge to traditional banking. The Gibraltar Stock Exchange launched Europe’s first regulated bitcoin asset last year, while the Digital Currency Summit took place there in May. The biggest announcement was a proposal to regulate the underlying blockchain technology. “In a world in which reputation means so much, it’s understandable that Gibraltar wants to put itself in a position to make the most of developments in this space, whilst not exposing itself to reputational risk,” writes business consultant Johann Olivera in the Gibraltar Chronicle.
What’s next for the city?
Sorting out its sewage problem, something the current government promised to do when it was elected in 2011. In May this year, the European court of justice pulled up the territory for continuing to pump raw sewage out into the Mediterranean at Europa Point. A slanging match erupted between the ruling Gibraltar Socialist Labour party and the opposition Gibraltar Social Democrats in the country’s parliament. “I’ve seen [effluent] spread out in a slick trail far out to sea when the waves aren’t so strong, so it’s not inconceivable to think that it is travelling to nearby beaches like Sandy Bay,” says shadow environment spokesperson Trevor Hammond. The government says part of the delay in building a plant is due to the fact Gibraltarian sewage is carried in salt water, and any new system needs to account for varying salinity levels. There is no native water supply on the peninsula, a longstanding problem.