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In Gibraltar, British citizens worry about effects of Brexit

April 2, 2017 at 2:09 PM EDT
Last week, British Prime Minister Theresa May began the formal process of the United Kingdom’s exit from the 28-nation European Union, nine months after British voters chose to leave the EU. This has the British citizens of Gibraltar, a 3-square-mile sliver of land in southern Spain that’s more than 1,000 miles away from London, worried about effects on travel and trade regulations. NewsHour Weekend special correspondent Amy Guttman reports.
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AMY GUTTMAN: Gibraltar is where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Mediterranean Sea. Tourists flock here to stand at the top of The Rock, 14-hundred feet above sea level, with tunnels carved into it which housed Allied troops during World War Two. For centuries, this peninsula jutting out of Spain’s southern coast has been a strategic military and trading post.

AMY GUTTMAN: Today, it’s the only British territory on the European continent. The mild climate, relaxed lifestyle, and mix of languages make Gibraltar feel culturally a lot like neighboring Spain.

AMY GUTTMAN: While 30-thousand people live in Gibraltar, 13-thousand Spaniards and other European nationals commute to work here every day. Most park their cars on the Spanish side and walk across an area known as “The Frontier.”

AMY GUTTMAN: George Bassadone employs 70 Spanish workers converting SUV’S into ambulances used by the United Nations and aid organizations all over the world.

GEORGE BASSADONE: The work that we do is very specialized, involving a lot of electronics, mechanical work. So, we tend to find that expertise in Spain.

AMY GUTTMAN: His business is dependent on one of the cornerstones of the European Union, free movement of people and goods across open borders. Gibraltar imports almost everything from its food to timber over its one mile land border with Spain. Bassadone was among the 96 percent of Gibraltar residents who voted to remain in the EU in last year’s referendum, when the overall majority of voters in the United Kingdom voted to leave.

GEORGE BASSADONE: The biggest fear we have is a potential closure of the border. We would have to reevaluate our Spanish workforce and look at possibly getting rid of the majority of our Spanish workers and trying to train up locals, which would be very disruptive and take up a huge amount of time to do.

AMY GUTTMAN: Are there locals who want to do these jobs?

GEORGE BASSADONE: That would be one of the big challenges finding 70-plus technicians and engineers that are able to do this kind of work. One of our unique selling points is to react quickly to international demand and disasters in different parts of the world. Having that agility and flexibility is very much based on the existing workforce that we have.

AMY GUTTMAN: Just as Gibraltar depends on Spanish workers for 40 percent of its workforce, residents of the closest Spanish city, La Linea de Concepcion, depend on jobs in Gibraltar. Despite that, more than a-third of La Linea’s population is unemployed, like Marga Sanchez.
She’s worried that uncertainty about Brexit could make it even more difficult to find a job.

MARGA SANCHEZ: The people are trying to sell their houses, but they don’t find buyers, because nobody wants to invest right now. We are in limbo, basically.

AMY GUTTMAN: Would it be possible for you and your partner to support yourselves with jobs in La Linea?

MARGA SANCHEZ: There are no jobs in La Linea. We only have Gibraltar as our main factory. Either you work there or you have to find another way to survive.

AMY GUTTMAN: La Linea’s economy also gets a big boost from the 175 million dollars Gibraltar residents spend every year in Spain…

PERSON CHANGING MONEY: 150 pounds, please.

AMY GUTTMAN: …on shopping, restaurants, and services like this auto body repair shop, where 40 percent of the customers come from over the border. La Linea Mayor Juan Franco says his constituents and Gibraltar residents are already feeling one negative effect from Brexit, the decline in the value of the British pound, Gibraltar’s currency.

MAYOR JUAN FRANCO: Now the pound has a rate of about 15 percent lower than six or seven months ago. That affects the salaries of the Spanish workers and Europeans. It’s like a chain effect, because people spend less money in La Linea.

AMY GUTTMAN: Juan Jose Uceda, who represents a union for Spanish workers employed in Gibraltar, estimates 25 percent of La Linea’s economy comes from the neighboring peninsula.

JUAN JOSE UCEDA: We export a lot of stuff to Gibraltar. What is going to happen with all the groceries and the fruits and vegetables and shoes and other things we export from spain to UK?

AMY GUTTMAN: You can see those exports moving every day before dawn, as three hundred trucks line up on the Spanish side of the border waiting for customs checks before making deliveries to warehouses in Gibraltar.

IDAN GREENBERG: The frontier is very important. It needs to be open for Gibraltar to survive, I think.

IDAN GREENBERG: Idan Greenberg owns a cafe and bakery in Gibraltar. He says it would be impossible to run his business without those daily deliveries.

IDAN GREENBERG: You need chickpeas from Spain and tahini, which happens to be imported via London over road and coming over the border with Spain.

AMY GUTTMAN: A short airstrip and a border crossing are all that separate the peninsula of Gibraltar from mainland Spain. The relationship with its nearest neighbor has been tempestuous in the past, at times making Gibraltar practically an island. For decades, Spain has exerted pressure to regain sovereignty over Gibraltar, for example, intentionally slowing passport and vehicle checks at its border, leading to traffic jams of up to 12 hours.

AMY GUTTMAN: The worst confrontation came in 1969, when Spanish Dictator Francisco Franco closed the border entirely to assert Spain’s claim over the territory. The border remained shut for 15 years, causing massive job losses for La Linea residents who worked in Gibraltar and dividing families.

JUAN JOSE UCEDA: Almost a third of the population had to leave. It was really difficult for us to survive psychologically that situation. Many people of Gibraltar and La Linea are mixed. They are families. They are grandparents here that go there to Gibraltar to meet their grandchildren or vice versa.

AMY GUTTMAN: Ed Macquisten, who heads the Gibraltar Chamber of Commerce, says the hardening of the border would also hurt Gibraltar’s economy.

EDWARD MACQUISTEN: There are a number of people who live in this town who have experienced that before, when the Spanish Government shut the frontier in 1969. For the business owners that were running businesses in those days, they had two weeks notice and two weeks later they didn’t have their staff. How can you run a business like that?

AMY GUTTMAN: Macquisten says today he’s concerned about the position of the current Spanish government.

AMY GUTTMAN: Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has called for joint sovereignty over Gibraltar. If Gibraltar wants to remain in the EU after Brexit, saying last December:
“It’s impossible for Gibraltar to be in the European Union if the United Kingdom leaves the European Union and if there are no legal changes.”

AMY GUTTMAN: Chief Minister Fabian Picardo, the highest ranking government official in Gibraltar, says residents oppose Spanish rule of any kind.

FABIAN PICARDO: There’s only one option on the table as far as the people of Gibraltar are concerned. We’re going to stay entirely and exclusively British for exactly the same reason as the people of the United States would today not be prepared to countenance joint sovereignty with Canada or Mexico.

AMY GUTTMAN: The British Government has already said it won’t negotiate with Spain on sovereignty over Gibraltar or cede Gibraltar to Spain. Picardo advocates a special status for Gibraltar with the EU, to at least maintain freedom of movement for goods and people.

FABIAN PICARDO: Geographically, politically, and socio-economically, we have different realities. We have a land border with the European continent. That means that there are going to have to be slight differences between what is agreed for us and what might have to be agreed for the rest of the United Kingdom.

AMY GUTTMAN: Economically, Gibraltar has touted its EU access and relatively low corporate taxes to lure industries that don’t export physical products, like insurance, financial services and online betting companies. Now, some of those companies say they’re exploring relocating offices elsewhere in the EU. Amidst the uncertainty over its political future, Chamber of Commerce president Ed Macquisten sees economic opportunity.

ED MACQUISTEN: We’ve always sought to diversify our economy and get it to develop in various different ways so you’re not reliant on any single sector. If one market or two markets shut down, people in this town will get up and go out and find five new markets.

AMY GUTTMAN: Even with well thought out plans, George Bassadone fears a hardened border will hurt his bottom line.

GEORGE BASSADONE: These contingencies would come with additional costs to the business, and those costs we would not be able to pass on to the customer. We’re already playing in a market that’s very price sensitive. We would want the frontier to stay open to allow for the freedom of movement of goods and personnel for our business moving forward.

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