Brexit threatens to reignite a three-century-old border dispute between the UK and Spain that could disrupt daily life for thousands of Gibraltar’s inhabitants.
The tiny British territory at the entrance to the Mediterranean risks starting the New Year with fresh restrictions at its border with the European Union unless the UK and Spain reach a last-minute agreement over the disputed frontier.
The Brexit trade accord sealed on Dec. 24 failed to include a settlement for the British Overseas Territory and its 32,000 inhabitants. Without one, thousands of Gibraltarians and Spanish citizens who cross the border every day for work or leisure could face long delays as passport checks are imposed.
Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya told RNE radio this week that failure to reach agreement would result in Gibraltarians waking up on Jan. 1 to find they have “the UK's hardest border.” The British government has said it is continuing negotiations with Spain.
On a typical day prior to the pandemic, the territory’s border posts would handle as many as 30,000 crossings. They would include more than 15,000 workers -- including many Spaniards -- who enter Gibraltar’s Winston Churchill Avenue from the Spanish town of La Linea.
Supply trucks bringing British produce overland from the UK would also face fresh obstacles in getting to the Rock if full customs checks were imposed. Goods would have to be cleared into the EU and then out again through a Spanish customs post across the bay in Algeciras before entering the territory.
Gibraltar has been no stranger to tension since the British took control of the Rock in 1713. Many inhabitants of the strategic outcrop vividly remember a 13-year blockade enforced by Spanish dictator Francisco Franco that only ended in 1982.
Common membership of the EU helped to smooth out the periodic tensions over the territory between the UK and Spain, enabling it to thrive on tourism, financial services and online gaming.
Spain has already taken some steps to offset the impact of Brexit by allowing Gibraltarians to work in professions requiring EU nationality or hold public sector jobs.
Gibraltar already trades with the EU as a third country for goods, meaning that, unlike the UK, its small economy isn’t facing a barrage of new rules from Dec. 31.