A fine Gibraltarian equilibrium

A rock could easily smash a whole EU glass panel. Only diplomacy at its best can stop it


Try and pull that bit of loose thread and your jumper will fall apart. The European Union fabric can fray easily. On its fringes, Gibraltar is a dangling piece of yarn perhaps best left untouched.

The Rock is a well-earned nickname; it’s not just its shape. This British Overseas Territory is tough; it’s put up with all sorts of attacks. Even from El País, a pluralist paper, known for its authoritative, balanced commentaries: a journalism model whose surprisingly spiteful ink has often criticised Gibraltar and Spanish ministers alike.

The long-drawn debates around the British colony saw a sharp swerve in the summer of 2013. The Gibraltar government sank seventy spiked concrete blocks into the sea to hamper Spanish fishermen, who had been accused of poaching Gibraltarian fish.

A spectacularly provocative measure that prompted Spain to ignite Franco-regime-like reprisals. The border was indeed shut off between 1969 and 1985, during which time the colony’s airport was partially built on waters Spain claims as its own.

Gibraltar is well connected to its Spanish hinterland region, where unemployment sky-rocketed in recent times. Luckily the British colony has been enjoying growth all along (7 per cent in 2013), offering job opportunities to anyone willing to commute.

Yet Gibraltar can’t help being looked at with suspicion. Anything to do with decades of Spanish bad-mouthing? Any truth in it?

Eighteen months ago chief minister Fabian Picardo happily told the New Statesman that “we are governed by the rule of law. […] The British way of doing things is hugely important”. The piece is an advertorial; and it shows how desperately The Rock wishes to be perceived.

Picardo refused to accept the commonly held view that Gibraltar is a tax dodger’s haven. When people say “that Gibraltar is anything but an onshore financial services centre, you just have to look at the position of the UK,” he confidently asserted. “The difference between corporation tax in the UK and Gibraltar is smaller than the difference between corporation tax in the UK and Spain.”

Gibraltar is not on any blacklist, the chief minister emphasized. “We comply with European Union rules on money laundering and on directives that affect financial services.” That was in October 2013; the headline: ‘Gibraltar: the chief minister’s story’; a legitimate right to a narrative version. His final words on fiscal matters were clear-cut: “You would find it very difficult to find people who were in Gibraltar to evade tax.”

Fast forward eight months to August 2014. The EU changed its mind on The Rock. El País stood ready to board; the headline: ‘The Gibraltarian underworld’. The EU Commission grew unsure of Gibraltar’s self-proclaimed squeaky-clean image: smuggling and money laundering were its growing concerns.

EU observers on a mission to the narrow peninsula found out that 110 million packs of cigarettes had been illegally sold on the Spanish black market via Gibraltar. The World Health Organization affirmed illicit tobacco has been drastically curbed in Spain in the past years: other ways in have perhaps opened up.

The wider picture: a 2002 referendum rejected a joint sovereignty. Scaling up Gibraltar’s participation in the EU – The Rock firmly rejects a Brexit – and allowing it to have its own MEP as part exchange for abiding more strictly to continental standards could be a compromise.

What about a Hong Kong-style devolution? The ensuing domino effect: Morocco vociferously reclaiming Ceuta and Melilla, with Catalan separatists pursuing even further their secessionist goals. (Catalonia lost its independence in the same 1713 Treaty of Utrecht.)

Shrewd diplomacy is once more required. Especially if you still like wearing that old but cosy jumper of yours. Otherwise just pull the thread and see what happens. It could be quite fun to watch, you never know.

Alessio Colonnelli also contributes to openDemocracy, Shifting Grounds and Euro Crisis/LSE. He holds a combined B.A./M.A. in languages and literary translation from Padua University

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