When I switched on the tv to watch the returns for the EU referendum on the evening of 23 June, the first voting area to report its result was Gibraltar. The numbers were read off: 19,322 votes for Remain, 823 votes for Leave, with a turnout of 83.5%.
With 95.9% of the vote, Gibraltar was the top area of support for Remain.
Gibraltar is one of fourteen remaining British Overseas Territories, under British control since the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht. Early on, it was conquered successively by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, and Visigoths, who each valued its strategic location on the Mediterranean Sea. Islamic forces conquered Gibraltar as part of the conquest of Iberia, in 711; Spain retook control in 1462.
During the War of Spanish Succession, Gibraltar was captured from the Spanish and ceded to the British, who faced down subsequent sieges by Spain and consolidated their control by 1784.
Spain has continually disputed the status of Gibraltar as a British territory, making this the crucial element of how Brexit will impact the territory.
Even before the referendum, José Manuel García-Margallo (Spain’s acting Foreign Minister) remarked that it was “perfectly possible” for Spain to close the border with Gibraltar if the UK left the European Union, although he also stated that this was not something the Spanish government had specifically considered. The border with Spain had previously been closed between 1969 and 1985, only fully reopening when Spain joined the European Community. García-Margallo also told Spanish National Radio that if Britain were to leave the EU, “we would be talking about Gibraltar the very next day.”
In 2002, Gibraltar voted overwhelmingly to reject a proposal to share sovereignty with Spain. Now, many in Gibraltar see the EU as a force that aids in keeping a positive relationship with the Spanish. With Spain in control of its only land border, freedom of movement could be at stake, as about 10,000 people cross the border with Spain for work each day. And the question of sovereignty also will continue to surface. After the Brexit vote, García-Margallo stated, “The Spanish flag on the Rock is much closer than before.”
Fabian Picardo, the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, dismissed the idea of a change in sovereignty but has pursued a separate deal to keep Gibraltar in the EU.
What will it mean for this part of Britain on the European mainland to no longer be part of the European Union? How open will the border with Spain remain when it is no longer an EU border? And how will this impact the lives and identity of the people of Gibraltar in the long run?