Brexit fallout looms large over Gibraltar

Today the strained and complex relationship between the governments of Spain and Gibraltar faces a new challenge. Since the conquest of Gibraltar in 1704 and its accession to the United Kingdom by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, Spain has claimed the right to recover this small territory in the southern part of the Iberian Peninsula. A legitimate request for some and a territorial infringement for others. Despite the willingness of the contenders to negotiate in the second half of the 20th century, trying to resolve the question of sovereignty, negotiations reached an impasse in 2001-2002. The United Kingdom refused to carry out further negotiations when almost 99 per cent of Gibraltarian voters discarded the idea of shared sovereignty between Spain and United Kingdom. Since then, the Spanish government has been pressing both the United Kingdom and the United Nations, which in the 1960s urged for a prompt bilateral agreement, for the resumption of negotiations. Conflicts of interest, maritime disputes or allegations of illegal behaviour have been a continuous reality which have represented a serious threat to Spain-Gibraltar diplomatic relations.

However, an unexpected event has opened a new scenario in the relations between Spain and Gibraltar: the United Kingdom European Union (EU) membership referendum in which 52 per cent of British citizens voted to leave the EU, otherwise known as Brexit. On the other hand, its outcome will depend on the strategies adopted by the actors involved in the process. The main question is: will it change the status quo? Will Spain be able to benefit from this situation? What can Gibraltar expect and what are its options?

Before the Referendum: the shadow of uncertainty

Gibraltar is part of the European Union since 1973, coinciding with the membership of the United Kingdom. Declaration 55 annexed to the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, in the section “Declarations by state members”, points out that “the Treaties apply to Gibraltar as a European territory for whose external relations a Member State is responsible”. Therefore, the legislation of the British overseas territory is different from that of the other EU members, as the rules on the free movement of goods are not applicable, the country is excluded both from the Customs Union and the Common Commercial Policy, the Common Agricultural Policy, the Common Fisheries policy, and the Schengen Area. At the same time, Gibraltar is fully committed to implement the other chapters of the Community Legislation (environment, transport, fiscal policy, etc.) and it has the right of access to the single market (Del Valle Gálvez, 2014).

The idea of leaving the EU was therefore regarded as a threat to its comfortable status. As polls increasingly showed tight results, Gibraltar was more concerned for two reasons: the potential lack of access to the single market and the closure of the borders by the Spanish government, which already took place between 1969 and 1985 under the dictators Francisco Franco. Besides the rising concern about the protection of workers’ rights, EU funds or a decreasing role played in the environmental policy, the economic crisis and potential isolation have been issues of major concern for the colony.

Why were these two aspects particularly sensitive issues? At present, 500 million people have access to the EU single market, including high-end products and services. According to the statistics developed by the European Commission, in 2015 the value of total imports of Gibraltar from the EU was 4.584 millions which, compared to 322 millions of exports, conveys the idea of the European single market as the greatest source of economic growth for the territory. The government of Gibraltar expressed its concern for the impact of a potential leaving and the Chief Minister Fabian Picardo affirmed that “it would be serious for Gibraltar if the UK decides to leave the single market, but if it decides to leave the EU but remain in the single market, then that wouldn’t be so bad” (Carbajosa, 2016).

The closure of the gates by the Spanish government represents a similar or even more serious threat for Gibraltar. Since the membership of Spain in 1986, the territory’s policies related to the freedom of movement of goods and people are limited by the EU Treaties and legislation. As Gibraltar is not part of the Schengen Area, Spain could exert more influence, but always in proportion to the status of Gibraltar as part of the EU space. However, the exclusion of Gibraltar would give Spain the chance to recall the Treaty of Utrecht, which would mean gaining decision-making power over the opening and closure of the borders, and dealing with Gibraltar as any other non EU Member State. In the words of the Gibraltar Chamber of Commerce, “Every day half of Gibraltar’s workforce crosses the border to get to work. Of the 12,000 people who cross the frontier, around 7,000 are Spanish and the remaining 5,000 are Europeans citizens. Without open borders many businesses in Gibraltar would not have a workforce.”  

Brexit, an unexpected result

The results of the United Kingdom EU referendeum represented a real shock for Gibraltar’s people, where 96 per cent of the electorate voted not to leave the EU. Then, how is this reality impacting the relations between Spain and Gibraltar? Spain seized the opportunity to reinforce its proposal of a joint sovereignty over Gibraltar, so the territory could take advantage of the rights of an EU Member, assuring its permanence in the single market and avoiding risks related to the freedom of movements. In addition, the Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation, José García Margallo, openly declared: “I hope the formula of co-sovereignity – to be clear, the Spanish flag on the Rock – is much closer than before” (Jones, 2016). Despite expressing his disappointment about the Brexit and justifying his statement as a rational conclusion, both Gibraltar and the United Kingdom did not seem to appreciate.

The answer of Fabian Picardo during his speech at the Gibraltar Parliament on 24 June was exhaustive: “Gibraltar will never be Spanish as a whole, in part or at all. So I ask all our citizens to ignore these rumors”. This statement is not surprising considering that during the campaign for a ‘yes’ vote, one of the arguments of the Gibraltar’s government was that “Gibraltar cannot afford to place itself at the mercy of Spain”. On the other hand, the United Kingdom is not willing to do anything that Gibraltar does not want too, as it was explained by David Livington, former United Kingdom’s Minister for Europe, who affirmed that “the United Kingdom will continue to stand beside Gibraltar. We will never welcome any agreement under which the people of Gibraltar would pass under the sovereignty of another state against its wishes. Furthermore, the UK will not negotiate the issue of sovereignty in such terms that Gibraltar may dislike” (Jones, 2016).

Does Brexit open a new scenario in the relations between Spain and Gibraltar?

In spite of the firm decision of Gibraltar to keep the distance from Spain, two elements deserve a particular attention: the pivotal role currently played by Spain, which could make the difference in the future, and the capacity of Gibraltar to achieve an agreement with the EU. If Gibraltar leaves the EU dragged by the United Kingdom, Spain will gain control over the borders (due to its rejection of a joint sovereignty), or will continue to adopt same policy of border controls, without affecting both the Gibraltar people and the Spaniards moving to the territory. The only way for Spain to recover Gibraltar is to choose the second option. The closure of the borders would be seen as a revenge, which will turn against the Gibraltar’s government as well as the public opinion, and will be exposed to international criticism. Keeping the same policies in its relations with Gibraltar instead, would increase the possibilities of resuming the stuck negotiations, reducing the conflicts of interest over the territory and the chances to hold a new Referendum of sovereignty in Gibraltar.

On the other hand, Gibraltar has still options to remain in the EU or at least to find a solution with which to have a connection with the European space and the advantages that come from it. As Fabian Picardo said on June 29, “there is no rule book which would prevent Gibraltar from negotiating – with the support of the United Kingdom – to remain both 100% British and 100% in the EU or in the Single Market even if the United Kingdom will leave”. Together with the first Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon, representing another “pro yes” territory,  they are currently seeking new ways of coexistence in compliance with the national and European legislation. One option is represented by the “reverse-Greenland” model: Greenland left the EU in 1985 but without affecting the membership of Denmark. Extrapolated to the United Kingdom, England and Wales would leave the EU while keeping Scotland, Gibraltar and possibly Northern Ireland inside the group. A second option is the call by Gibraltar for a second Brexit vote given that, according to Fabian Picardo, “some people who voted to leave might have thought that a Brexit meant something completely different. Some people might have voted with rose-tinted spectacles, and others might have been persuaded on the basis of a false prospectus that Brexiters advanced” (Buck, 2016). The achievement of positive results would reinforce the distance from Spain: Gibraltar would have maintained its EU status, or remained inside the single market, without the need of a joint sovereignty with Spain and forcing the latter to respect the EU treaties concerning the freedom of movements. A precedent like that would be a strong incentive for not depending on any other country in the future, feeling able to solve any kind of issue independently.

The article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty sets a two year frame of negotiations after the formal request of withdrawal, in order to define the future relationship of the country with the EU. The willingness of the group, more or less rigid in front of the Brexit and its consequences, will be a crucial factor both for Spain and Gibraltar: the possibility for the Spanish government to play an important role in the status of Gibraltar in terms of joint sovereignty, or the reinforcement of Gibraltar by assuming complete economic and political independence without the need of the United Kingdom to be in the EU. Now it is just a matter of time until seeing if the relations of both contenders will follow one way or the other. 


Lara Castro Navarro

Master’s degree in Contemporary History (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona)




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