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The Rock in a hard place – is Gibraltar adrift after Brexit?

People queue on the Gibraltar side of the border as EU observers assess the legality of Spanish traffic checks. Photo: Ben Birchall / PA Archive / Press Association Images

Tarik el-Yabani was not in a party mood. The room in which Gibraltar’s EU referendum vote count had just taken place was filled with the cheers of victory, but he had voted for the losing side. “The whole room, everyone was thrilled,” recalls the 24-year-old Gibraltarian who attended the vote more out of morbid curiosity rather than any belief he would witness an upset. “I was the only sod there who was unhappy.”

It was late on the evening of 23rd June and Gibraltar had just overwhelmingly voted for the UK to remain in the European Union. For almost everyone on the Rock, remaining made a lot of sense, given the advantages that membership has conferred. Gibraltar is a low-tax haven that has become a financial hub, as well a destination for online betting companies. Compared to La Línea de la Concepción, the Spanish town on the other side of the isthmus where unemployment remains stubbornly above 40 percent, Gibraltar has been thriving. Thanks to the EU principles of free movement, tens of thousands of Spanish workers cross the border to work every day.

Gibraltar’s political elite also maintains that EU membership has kept Spain’s increasingly bellicose attitude towards reclaiming Gibraltar in check. Many Gibraltarians still remember the day in 1969 when, under General Franco, Spain closed the border. It was only after his death, and as precondition of Spain joining the EU, that the border was fully opened again in 1982. As recently as 2013, a dispute over fishing rights saw the border again partially shut down, highlighting Gibraltar’s vulnerability.

Gibraltar icons post

So it was little surprise that the very first referendum result to be announced showed 96 percent of Gibraltarians voting to remain. This meant that 823 people, including el-Yabani, had voted to leave. A few hours after the party in the vote count room, the celebrations turned into a wake when it became clear that the UK had narrowly voted to leave the EU. “It was as if someone had died,” el-Yabani says of the aftermath. “It was mourning. Everyone was upset, solemn. Disappointed and sad.”

The shock result prompted the 96 percent to ask who the Gibraltarians were who voted to leave – and why? El-Yabani’s response to critics was to pitch his vision of a new future for the Rock. “Why not open ourselves up? Why can’t we be the European Hong Kong?” he says. “It is about economic potential. I look at Spain: its influence in the EU is increasing. It is doing everything it can to strangle us economically.”

El-Yabani is used to being in a minority. His family comes from Morocco, although he was born in Gibraltar, and he considers himself a libertarian. He helped run the centre-right Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), which won four percent of the vote in the 2011 Gibraltar general election, but was later disbanded due to a lack of support.

I look at Spain: its influence in the EU is increasing. It is doing everything it can to strangle us economically”

During its short life the PDP was the only party that believed in independence, or something close to it, as the way forward for Gibraltar. “My parents named me after the Moorish general that captured Gibraltar from the Spanish,” he said. “I joked that if I ever get elected, I’ll return it to the original name, ‘Jebel Tarik’, which means ‘Tarik’s Mountain’.”

In the run-up to the vote he would have good-natured arguments with friends and colleagues, both in person and on Gibraltar’s political discussion pages on Facebook. Some, he said, even sympathised with him. “At first they said I was crazy,” he said. “But then they started doubting themselves.”

Fellow four-percenter John Bromfield, on the other hand, took to print to make his case for Brexit. Bromfield is “70 years young”, Northampton-born and a self-confessed “true blue Conservative”. The territory’s biggest newspaper, the Gibraltar Chronicle, was on the lookout for a rare Brexit supporter to make the case to leave, in the interest of balance, and his columns caused a stir. “It was considered unpatriotic!” recalls Bromfield gleefully.

My wife is more hardcore. She thinks the European Commission should be lined up against the wall and shot!”

He is married to a Gibraltarian, who also voted for Brexit. “I wanted to leave the EU because I thought it was undemocratic, with unelected officials making decisions that were wrong,” he says. “My wife is more hardcore. She thinks they [the European Commission] should be lined up against the wall and shot!”

Like el-Yabani, Bromfield saw Brexit as an economic opportunity, as long as the UK plays hardball in the negotiations. He believes UK prime minister Theresa May is the woman for the job. “I like a strong leader. You might find she has more gumption [than former prime minister David Cameron]. She ran the Home Office with an iron fist,” he says.

Gibraltar is a small place and both Bromfield, a building-supplies exporter, and el-Yabani, an aspiring politician who currently works in insurance, claim that many people told them they might lose government jobs or contracts if they went public with their pro-Brexit views. But Bromfield in particular has seen no negative effects. “I was told people were naming the 823 on Facebook,” he said. “A friend said: ‘You are being hunted down, John.’ I said: ‘Bring it on!’ I’ll stand up in the main square and say it again.”

El-Yabani is more circumspect about the effects of Brexit. He will continue to push the libertarian argument – for small government and greater individual freedom – but recognises that facts on the ground might change his mind. If Spain is emboldened by the vote to push once again for sovereignty over the Rock, Gibraltarians’ attitude towards the 823 Brexiteers in their midst might sour. “I’m so optimistic,” he says. “But seeing really negative consequences would change my mind. We could end up ruined. But I don’t think we will.”

 

 

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