Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Gibraltar and Brexit

  • January 2020
  • Hannah Bettsworth

Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Gibraltar and Brexit

Gibraltar, English, Rock, Coast, Mediterranean

Source: Pixabay

Despite voting 96% to Remain, Gibraltar now faces Brexit: nothing short of a fundamental challenge to what it means to be Gibraltarian, British, and European.

As the UK hurtles towards Brexit, its people have been swept along for the ride whether they voted for it or not. The CFEP has extensively covered the Scottish situation, but the Gibraltarian situation remains under-discussed.

Gibraltar’s story is as, if not more, complex than Scotland’s. A disputed territory between Spain and the UK, its culture, society, politics and economics all stem from its geopolitical situation. As such, it voted 96% to Remain in the European Union. Despite that decisive result, it now faces Brexit: nothing short of a fundamental challenge to what it means to be Gibraltarian, British, and European.

The BBC has a brief explainer of Spain and the UK’s claims. In short, it revolves around a 1713 treaty ceding Gibraltar from Spain to the UK. Anglo-Dutch forces captured its fortress in 1704, and it was then ceded to the British in the Treaty of Utrecht. Spain maintains that the treaty limits British sovereignty to particular areas of Gibraltar. It does not recognise the airport and the territorial waters as UK sovereign territory. The UK maintains that the whole of Gibraltar was ceded to it forever, with no exceptions.


In more modern times, the two states have resorted to different doctrines of international law. The UK relies on the idea of self-determination: the people of Gibraltar have chosen to remain linked to the UK and have rejected shared sovereignty with Spain, and their will should be observed. For Spain, non-interference with the fixed borders of another state (the territorial integrity principle) matters far more than self-determination, particularly for a community which it decries as the result of colonialism.

Gibraltar has been listed as a Non-Self-Governing Territory with the UN since 1946. This is another point of contention between the UK and Spain. In the UN decolonisation process, the UK maintains that Gibraltar is for all extents and purposes decolonised, having responsibility for everything except foreign affairs, defence and internal security. Spain pushes for a solution based on territorial integrity instead of self-determination, citing previous UN resolutions which supported that position. This leaves Gibraltar in limbo. It has a democratically elected government that has the capacity to make its own policy on the vast majority of topics. However, it exists in a liminal space: colonised-on-paper-but-not-in-reality. Under the Treaty of Utrecht, if the UK ever relinquishes Gibraltar, it reverts back to Spain. Even if Gibraltar wanted to be independent – which it does not – it could not be.

Gibraltarian identity is fundamentally shaped by the dispute. During the Francoist period, the border was closed, separating families and leaving a traumatic mark on Gibraltar’s collective memory. One woman recently told Spain’s El Periódico: “My grandmother was very sick in La Línea [the Spanish city bordering Gibraltar] and to go to see her, my mother had to get a ferry to Morocco and from there another to Algeciras. It took over a day and by the time she arrived my grandmother had already died. She never forgave them.” This history has coloured perceptions of Spain to the point that some view its persistence in claiming Gibraltar as borderline totalitarian.


As detailed in a House of Lords report on Brexit and Gibraltar, many Gibraltarians thank Spanish accession to the European Economic Community for reopening the border. Building on that achievement, the Brussels Process began in 1984. It sought to set up UK-Spain discussions, reduce restrictions on moving goods and people over the land border (Gibraltar is not in the Customs Union or Schengen) and provide reciprocal rights for Spanish people in Gibraltar and Gibraltarians in Spain. It failed to directly include Gibraltarians and collapsed in 2002 when they voted against shared sovereignty.

In 2004, the UK, Spain and Gibraltar set up a Forum for Dialogue. This had more success, making deals on pension payments to retirees who had worked in Gibraltar, easing border crossing, Gibraltar dialling codes, cross-border economic cooperation, allowing Gibraltar’s Airport to take part in EU aviation measures, and permitting civilian aircraft to use Spanish airspace.

Finally, in 2007, the Treaty of Lisbon discussions resulted in text setting out Gibraltar’s unique status as a European territory with a Member State responsible for its external relations. Trilateral talks collapsed in 2011 when the hard-line Partido Popular governed Spain once more. During intense border disruption in 2012-13, the UK was able to appeal to the European Commission on Gibraltar’s behalf. It did not find Spain in breach of EU rules but wrote to both Member States with recommendations and kept up ‘soft’ pressure through subsequent inspection visits. More recently, the UK received a preview of what may be to come. One of its MEPs was forced out of his rapporteur position, for resisting Spanish attempts to footnote Gibraltar as a colony.


Post-Brexit, Gibraltar faces economic losses as well as political. Returning to the House of Lords report, Gibraltar is a diverse service-based economy. Financial services and online gaming provide 40% of its GDP and 25% of total jobs. The right to offer financial services in other European Economic Area countries (Passporting Rights) is vital to the industry and will need to be negotiated as part of the future free trade agreement. Ending the transition period without such an agreement could have a serious impact on Gibraltarian businesses. What’s more, almost 33% of finance jobs are held by frontier workers.

It isn’t just Gibraltar that would suffer from increased border controls. Gibraltar is the second largest employer in the Campo de Gibraltar region, the first being the regional government of Andalucía. Andalucía’s government has calculated that Brexit could cost it between 500 and 1200 million Euros, and proposed that it be granted special access to the European Solidarity Fund to cushion the blow.

What else can be done for Gibraltar? Chief Minister Fabian Picardo recently floated the idea of negotiating passport-free travel with the EU post-Brexit. The UK government rapidly reiterated that it would make the final decision. This scenario would be no threat to the Schengen zone: there are border checks between the UK and Gibraltar, and so the idea is worthy of serious consideration. In the past, more headway has been made while the Partido Socialista Obrero Español is in power in Spain, and it has recently formed a coalition with the left-wing populist party Podemos. This party has expressed little interest in the territorial dispute over Gibraltar, focusing on unemployment in the surrounding area and accusing it of being a tax haven.

It remains to be seen what will happen during the transition period, in previously uncharted political territory for both Spain and Gibraltar. The last word should go to Gibraltarian MP, Marlene Hassan Nahon, who highlighted a key problem with the ideas underlying Brexit.

She expressed the fear that “the interests of a much larger British population will displace those of Gibraltarians in the UK government’s dealings in exiting the European Union.” In light of the UK government’s tendency to privilege the desires of Leave voters over those of Remain voters, she may, unfortunately, be correct.

CFEP in Porto

  • January 2020
  • Hannah Bettsworth

CFEP in Porto

An update on our work with our friends at the TRAIN project


Last week, the Centre for European Progression headed to Porto for a seminar with the Tracing Integration Policies through Structured Dialogue (TRAIN) project team. The project aims to get young people and politicians together to talk about common European legal migration and integration policies. Based on these discussion events, the partners will come together to develop recommendations to the EU institutions.

The project carries out local and international activities, and we will be organising the final activity in Brussels to present the recommendations. Young people can also participate in the project online, and that was the main topic of the Porto seminar. First, we discussed which topics to select for further dialogue both in person and on the forum. Splitting into groups of two, we then spent hours researching, discussing and writing recommendations on our chosen topics.


The CFEP worked on migration with the Law and Internet Foundation (Bulgaria), and used our institutional knowledge to come up with policy recommendations. For example, we participated in the European Council of Refugees and Exiles’ annual conference in October 2019. While there, we learned about examples of good practice on integration. As such, we could recommend that other countries copy Belgium’s DUO for a JOB, pairing over 50s with young jobseekers of a migrant background.

In order to launch our new forum, we visited the Colégio Internato Claret with the help of our partners at Geoclube. There, we presented the project to the students and sat down with them to discuss their ideas. They were an articulate, socially aware group of young people who were full of ideas. The group the CFEP worked with had a particular passion for helping the homeless, having volunteered to distribute food to them. We spoke about how, in the UK, Indian restaurants often open on Christmas to give free dinners and company to people with nowhere else to go. We also decided that food was a way for people to get to know each other’s cultures. In Britain, Meghan Markle worked with the Hubb Community Kitchen – run by and for Grenfell Tower survivors – to produce a cookbook together with women from 12 different countries. Here in Belgium, there is also a Syrian refugees’ catering group in Antwerp.



The groups then posted their ideas on the forum, and we would invite all our followers to do the same! All you need is an email address: there’s no need to make yet another new online account. On the last day of the seminar, we exchanged project experiences with each other, finalised our policy recommendations, and then tackled the francesinha, a local sandwich filled with meat, covered in cheese and a beer sauce. It does come in a vegetarian version, but even then it’s a real challenge to finish!

All in all, we had a good, productive time in Porto and are looking forward to the next seminar in Malta!

A Baptism of Fire: Croatia’s Council Presidency

  • January 2020
  • Hannah Bettsworth

Negotiating Brexit, the Budget and the Balkans simultaneously is an unprecedented baptism of fire for Croatia.

Source: Pixabay


Only six and half years after joining the EU, on the 1st of January 2020, Croatia took over the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union. This is a chance for Zagreb to strengthen its EU and diplomatic credentials. Yet, many difficult files have fallen on the Croatian presidency’s desk. These include Brexit, the EU budget, migration and asylum, and the Western Balkans.


The Croatian government has defined 4 main priority areas: a Europe that develops, a Europe that connects, a Europe that protects, and an influential Europe. The official Presidency agenda goes into more detail about these overarching priority areas.


‘A Europe that develops’ entails a focus on regional development and supporting cohesion. In impending budget debates, countries like Croatia will defend cohesion funding against others seeking cuts. This heading also encompasses the European pillar of social rights, acting on negative demographic trends (a key Croatian priority), strengthening competitiveness and skills, and protecting the environment/fighting climate change.


‘A Europe that connects’ deals with European transport infrastructure, data infrastructure, establishing and integrating the energy market, and building stronger connections between European citizens through mobility, cultural heritage and dialogue with young people. These subheadings include some controversial and complex files such as advancing standards for new Artificial Intelligence technologies and increasing energy security. The former will have to be balanced against European technological competitiveness. The latter, largely, involves reducing dependence on Russian gas.


Russian power politics, based on being an essential energy supplier in Europe, have particular geopolitical importance for Croatia. Russia values influence over other countries, and eyes Croatia to have access to the Adriatic Sea. Croatia has European Commission funded Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) terminals as an alternative form of gas provision. As of now, these are not commercially viable (LNG imported from overseas is more expensive than Russian gas) and so their full capacity is not being used.


The energy question could be a springboard for discussing renewables and would provide the Commission with an opportunity to exercise its ‘geopolitical’ credentials.


‘A Europe that protects’ also has the potential to be a controversial priority area. Croatian civil society has raised concerns that the Presidency has classed migration and refugees under this heading. Doing so suggests that people seeking sanctuary are a threat to the European Union. This heading also includes counter-terrorism measures online, the rule of law, democratic principles and fundamental values, and combatting intolerance and disinformation. The counter-terrorism proposals have raised concerns among civil society activists. They fear the use of upload filters and false-positive deletions of legitimate content.


The Croatian presidency’s aim to reform the Common European Asylum System is ambitious. It was impossible to find an agreement over the last few years. Croatia itself faces accusations of violating migrants’ rights. Allegedly, it used illegal and violent pushbacks to Bosnia, in the service of its key goal to join Schengen.
Finally, ‘an influential Europe’ involves upholding multilateralism and the rules-based global order, international development policy, crisis response capacity, and the European future of the Western Balkans. The Western Balkans and enlargement is the biggest challenge, bar the EU budget, facing Croatia’s presidency. Most of these countries (apart from Albania) recently used to be part of Yugoslavia alongside Croatia. They now look to the Croatian presidency to speed up the enlargement process. The European future of the Western Balkans was put at risk by the French veto, in an attempt to refocus the EU’s efforts on internal reforms. Zagreb will need strong diplomatic skills to progress reform files while keeping enlargement at the top of the EU’s agenda. The EU-Western Balkans summit in Zagreb in May will have symbolic value as the 20th anniversary of the initial Zagreb Summit. This will not be enough. To hold value for the people of the Western Balkans, the EU must commit to and follow through on accession within the next decade.


Overall, Croatia’s programme for the Council of the European Union presidency is rather ambitious. The presidency holds an opportunity for the country to show diplomatic skill and increase its value as a partner in the EU. There is also a risk of failure to carry out such an ambitious programme. The twin challenges of internal divisions and geopolitical developments are not unique to the Croatian presidency. However, the experience of negotiating Brexit, the Budget and the Balkans simultaneously is an unprecedented baptism of fire.

The UK Election 2019

  • December 2019
  • Hannah Bettsworth

It’s right wing versus left, until the wings fall off our heads: the UK Election 2019


Source: Pixabay

Before the UK elections, the final YouGov model put the Conservatives on anywhere from 311 to 367 seats, with a prediction of 339. The magic majority is 326 of 650 seats.


In the cold light of day, the Conservatives hit the top end of that projection with 365 seats. What happened? How did it go so wrong for the Remain movement?


The election result cannot be wholly blamed on the electoral system, but this result will resurrect cries for reform. Under First Past The Post, if Candidate A gets 40% of the vote in Nowhereshire and Anytown, Candidate B gets 20%, Candidate C gets 20%, Candidate D gets 15% and Candidate E gets 5%, Candidate A is elected.


Unfortunately for the people of Nowhereshire and Anytown, they are now represented by an MP that 60% of voters didn’t want. This system leads to disproportionate success for parties that can count on concentrated support in particular areas and makes it harder for new and small parties to gain (and keep) a foothold.


The Electoral Reform Society modelled the 2019 election results with the kind of Proportional Representation also used in the UK European Parliament elections. The results were as follows:




Although the Brexit process will now drive forward, it is debatable as to whether that reflects the true will of the people. A proportional result would have led to a hung parliament and some difficult and possibly different decisions.


However, the UK is where it is. The Labour Party faces a massive hill to climb if it is to have any chance of returning to government. A centre-left British think tank, the Fabian Society, has analysed the scale of the challenge. The party needs to win at least 123 seats at the next General Election to have a majority of 1. That will involve regaining marginal seats, the seats lost in its heartland, and formerly safe Conservative seats where demographic change could give it a fighting chance. It will also need to take SNP held seats or work with them. An SNP-Labour government would require Labour to win 83 seats from other parties, which, again, would be a tall order.


They note that one of the reasons for the Conservative majority was the split progressive vote. In 56 Conservative seats, the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green vote combined was higher than the winning Conservative vote. The tragedy of FPTP, however, is not the whole story. Datapraxis, a polling and analysis company, has produced an initial report of the factors underlying the Conservative victory. It makes tough reading for British progressives.


In short, the Conservative victory was a result of ongoing Labour decline in its heartlands, combined with sceptical attitudes to a UK political system seen as rigged and out-of-touch, anti-immigration feelings, and a perception that social security and public services are being exploited by others. The UK has an ongoing tradition of sensationalist and misleading news, which has escalated with the rise of social media. Brexit provided a ‘way out’ to an imaginary renewed UK.


Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is the elephant in the room. He is fundamentally unpopular among the kind of voters Labour needed to retain. Datapraxis calls this the most significant factor in Labour’s decline. 52% of Labour Leave voters disliked him, and 48% of them disliked Johnson. They were potentially winnable – 54% of them listed the NHS in their top two issues – but they were turned off by Corbyn’s radical left-wing views, Labour anti-Semitism issues, and saw him as unpatriotic. Conservative Remainers saw him as a danger to the country that they were forced to avert by reluctantly continuing to vote Conservative despite their dislike of Johnson. 1.3 million Labour Remainers went to other Remain parties: in some seats, they could have made the difference by staying with Labour. Its late conversion to supporting a confirmatory referendum on Brexit stopped it from haemorrhaging voters to the Liberal Democrats, but the damage was done.


A short note on tactical voting: progressive parties have debated whether closer cooperation could have avoided this. The Liberal Democrats campaigned against both Labour and the Conservatives, and bad blood remains between Labour and the Lib Dems over the latter’s coalition government record. Labour supporters particularly resent Lib Dem defector Sam Gyimah for standing in Kensington, which narrowly fell to the Tories.


According to Datapraxis, the Liberal Democrats’ message about Jo Swinson potentially becoming Prime Minister was one of the worst-performing messages the company had tested in Europe. The message that Britain deserved better than Corbyn or Johnson was much better received. The party was unable to mobilise a strong, substantial campaign to match it and did not connect with the soft Conservative vote it needed to win over. Even if the two parties had made a full electoral pact, Datapraxis modelling suggests 78% of non-frontrunner progressive voters would have had to vote tactically – an eye-wateringly high success rate. Even if this were possible, under the model, the Conservatives would have remained the largest party in a hung parliament.


Finally, a summary of the Scottish question. The Scottish National Party (SNP) won 45% of the vote, and 80% of the seats, in Scotland. Many of its politicians have raised the question of a mandate for another Scottish independence referendum. However, as a result of the voting system, this mandate is also questionable. 45% is also the share of voters who backed independence in 2014. Only 10 SNP candidates got over 50% of the vote: it is mathematically possible for the other 38 to win by mobilising existing pro-independence voters. In any case, Johnson has clearly stated his opposition to a second vote, and the Scottish Government has made it equally clear that it will not repeat the Catalans’ mistakes.  Sturgeon has stated she will not hold a referendum without the consent of the UK government. The only certainty is that there will be political and potentially legal disputes. Even with consent, a referendum could not practicably be held before the 31st January 2020, and Scotland will leave the EU with the UK. Anything beyond that remains unpredictable.



A silver lining for UK progressives? Boris Johnson’s government has nobody left to blame but itself. Having won over traditionally Labour-supporting areas, they now have a voter coalition that includes formerly industrial Blyth Valley and affluent ex-Liberal Democrat seat Cheltenham. This is a naturally fragile group and may collapse under the weight of EU-UK negotiations on the future relationship. Corbyn may have been hated, but Johnson is hardly loved. Datapraxis found that he was described, time and again, across all age groups, political loyalties, and genders as ‘the best of a bad bunch’. If Labour can find someone seen as better than Boris, and the Liberal Democrats can build on their second-place results in the South, there is potential for a long, slow recovery.

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