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Gibraltar ‘frontier’ a rocky subject for Brexit

Few communities voted as strongly against Brexit as Gibraltar, but with less than 70 days to go before the UK transition period is up, the territory is hoping transit across its border with Spain will remain close to seamless.

On any given day, 14,000 people cross the border from Spain to Gibraltar to work — a step that for roughly 35 years has been a routine for most which involves passing a crossing point known as “la verja” (by the Spanish) or “the frontier” (by the Gibraltarians) onto the Rock.

But that step takes them from the European Union to what will shortly be a ‘third country’, when the transition period for Brexit draws to a close at the end of 2020.

Nestled in a narrow peninsula on the southern Mediterranean coast, Gibraltar shares a 1.8km border with Spain, which has maintained it has a sovereignty claim over the territory since it was ceded to Britain in 1713.

“Gibraltar has its own constitution, its own central authority, its own parliament which passes legislation, but in terms of defence, security, and external affairs, that’s still the remit of the UK.”
– Alfredo Vasquez

Prior to Brexit, Gibraltar was the sole British Overseas Territory to have a land border in the EU, and due to its location and complex geopolitical history, faces unique challenges post-January 1.

“Gibraltar has its own constitution, its own central authority, its own parliament which passes legislation, but in terms of defence, security, and external affairs, that’s still the remit of the UK,” said Alfredo Vasquez, a Director of Baker Tilly Gibraltar.

“Spain has maintained its claim for many years and that has created tension over the years, with peaks and troughs in the relationship during that time. But the fact is that we have an land border with Spain which makes this a complex area.”

Since the mid-80s, Spanish nationals and other EU citizens entering Gibraltar (which is outside the Schengen area) have been able to pass through the border providing they carry an ID card. The same has applied when heading the other way.

But in September the Gibraltar government issued a technical notice reminding its 34,000 citizens that those travel rules are expected to change from January 1.

Unless a significant change occurs, Gibraltarians and UK nationals will need to carry a valid passport, obtain a European travel authorisation known as ETIAS, and be prepared to prove they have accommodation and sufficient money for their stay.

In terms of entry conditions into Gibraltar, this will continue to be a matter for the Government of Gibraltar, which has indicated that it is in favor of border fluidity.

For months, various groups have posed the idea that Gibraltar might enter the Schengen zone — as has non-EU member Lichtenstein — or at least enter a shared border arrangement. This would make it easier for workers to enter and exit Gibraltar, rather than face daily waits at passport control.

Yet it remains uncertain whether this will be the subject of a last-minute deal.

“Primarily these workers are Spanish citizens, but there are also many foreign nationals who reside in Spain but transit to Gibraltar daily, be they British, Germans, Swedes – you name it,” Mr Vasquez says.

“The checks are different for EU nationals crossing a Schengen border to the checks that apply for third countries or non-European Union nationals. This adds complexity in both directions, for European nationals wishing to continue to access Gibraltar for employment, and Gibraltarians who wish to transit to Spain, be it for employment or leisure.

“Obviously, apart from the transit of individuals, we also rely on the transit of goods and services across the commercial gates at the border. While less at risk, there would certainly be added bureaucracy surrounding the transit of goods into and out of Gibraltar.”

Gibraltarians voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU — with 19,322 voting to stay and just 823 to leave — but Mr Vasquez says there is now widespread acceptance that change is coming.

Businesses require certainty over what that change might look like, however, so they can plan accordingly.

“Conversations surrounding Gibraltar and Brexit sit against a certain degree of geopolitical tension, and we don’t know whether a solution will be in place by the transition period deadline of the December 31,” he says.

“How will border crossing individuals be treated? What kind of checks and balances will they be subjected to and how lengthy will they be? On a day-to-day basis, will there be hours-long queues to enter Gibraltar when you are just trying to enter for the sake of doing your nine-to-five?

“Will there be queues to exit when you are trying to get home to your family? These practical realities you often only see after the implementation of agreements. I think on a human level that is what is really important.

“Businesses don’t want to be constrained by physical borders, and they are always willing to look beyond it and our role as professional advisors follows the same formula.”
– Alfredo Vasquez

“While we hope some firm mechanisms will be put in place in time for the deadline, it is very much a wait and see situation in terms of how it will practically affect residents and workers on both sides of the border.”

For now, Baker Tilly Gibraltar is working with its clients on ensuring they can adapt to whatever comes once the transition period ends and Mr Vasquez says he remains optimistic that the outcome can be made to work.

“Businesses, I think, are very good at bridging borders,” he says.

“If you look at multinationals, they might have a headquarters in one country, but they see the world as their market and everyone as a potential consumer.

“Businesses don’t want to be constrained by physical borders, and they are always willing to look beyond it and our role as professional advisors follows the same formula.

“It is about having these conversations, understanding each other, finding common ground and building relationships. From those relationships comes opportunity and from opportunity comes collaboration.”

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Alfredo Vasquez

Baker Tilly Gibraltar

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