Conchita was among the 95.91% of Gibraltarians who voted against Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union in the 2016 referendum. Like her neighbors, she was shocked to find out the following day that the United Kingdom would be leaving the EU, a process commonly referred to as “Brexit.” There was nothing she could do but resign herself to it. And now, aged 64, she pauses during her stroll with her mother down Main Street to speak about the stalemate that has consumed the UK for the past three years and five-and-a-half months. “It’s a huge headache,” she says. “We have to move forward now and leave. There’s no turning back.”
Brexit is a key issue and the result of the election will have significant implications for us
Brian Reyes, editor of the Gibraltar Chronicle
Gibraltarians cannot vote in the British general election on Thursday even though the results will have massive repercussions on their lives. Consequently, the 34,500 people who live in the British Overseas Territory are glued to the election campaign, which could be the most important in the country’s recent history. “We are watching the campaign closely,” says the editor of the Gibraltar Chronicle, Brian Reyes. “Brexit is a key issue and the result of the election will have significant implications for us.”
But the issue of Gibraltar has been only mentioned in passing by the major parties. Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson has included “The Rock,” as Gibraltar is widely known, in his national defense program; the Labour party has pledged to defend its sovereignty; and the Liberal Democrats have championed its right to remain in Europe. The Gibraltarians listen to the different stances as though they were watching a game of tennis, but always with a degree of anxiety over what will happen in the event of a hard Brexit.
“The Gibraltarian is a political animal, but also a practical one,” says retired teacher Lionel Chipolina, who is also a member of The Cross Frontier Group, an organization that lobbies for the interests of workers and businesses on both sides of the border. “It’s not easy to have an opinion on the issue. The people here are doing state politics facing the possibility that Gibraltar could become a pawn in the potential struggle with the EU.”
In the 2006 referendum, 95.91% of Gibraltarians voted against Brexit
Marlene Hassan-Nahon, who leads Together Gibraltar, a progressive opposition party, believes that Gibraltarians have to come together to form a “national team” in the face of Brexit. “We should have a stronger voice to try to stay,” she says.
The possibility of staying in the EU is a hope still harbored by Gibraltar’s chief minister, Fabian Picardo, from the Gibraltar Socialist Labour Party (GSLP). His government, on the other hand, has opted for prudence and prefers to remain neutral.
For some time, the government of Gibraltar has been studying each of the scenarios in which the UK’s divorce from the EU could affect the British Overseas Territory. With a border crossed by 28,500 people a day, 9,726 of whom are Spanish cross-border workers, the impact will inevitably be significant.
Even Picardo chose to bring Gibraltar’s general election forward; it took place on October 17 in order to precede the October 31 Brexit deadline, which was delayed for the fourth time until January 31, 2020. “We are stuck in a loop because they are trapped,” says Brian Reyes. “That’s the way it is because that’s what’s been established by the British parliamentary democratic process. It’s an outdated democracy in action.”
Conchita admits that she is so sick of Brexit that she would even support Johnson’s plans to leave the EU at all costs. “The truth is it’s not bad. It’s all getting too long drawn out.”
But this attitude is precisely what Lionel Chipolina is afraid of. “The feeling of being fed up is being exploited by a populist like [Johnson],” he says.
Gibraltarians don’t consider things to be much better over the other side of the border, where Spain is still in the hands of a caretaker government. “We are between the most unstable countries in Europe right now,” says Chipolina.
Despite everything, there is still some optimism to be found on The Rock. Hassan-Nahon is hopeful that the British parties against Brexit will get a parliamentary majority at the British election, which will lead to a fresh referendum. “Maybe then we could wake up from this nightmare which has been going on since June 2016,” she says.