The population of Gibraltar’s sigh of relief at the result of the general election in Spain on 23rd July, may be short-lived. It had been widely anticipated that the socialist government of Pedro Sánchez would be ousted and replaced by a coalition between the Conservative People’s Party (PP) of Alberto Núñez Feijóo and the ultra-right-wing, anti-immigrant Vox party led by Santiago Abascal. The Vox Party has in the past said that it wants to close the border with Gibraltar to suffocate it economically, so that Spanish sovereignty can be reclaimed. 

In the event, although the PP gained most votes, their potential Vox party partners flopped, leaving the Conservatives and the Socialists and their respective coalition partners neck and neck, effectively preventing either from forming a government, making a new general election later this year or early next year a virtual certainty. Pedro Sánchez will, in the meantime, continue to run a caretaker government until the dust settles, giving the people of Gibraltar a further breathing space to celebrate the absence of their Vox adversaries from the corridors of power in Madrid.

Familiar to thousands of Scottish cruise ship passengers, the monolithic Rock of Gibraltar rears up from the stunning coastline of the Costa del Sol. Occupying an area of little more than two and a half square miles, the British Overseas Territory was captured from Spain by an Anglo-Dutch force in 1704 during the War of the Spanish Succession. It was formally ceded to Great Britain in 1717 under the terms of the treaty of Utrecht. It has been a bone of contention for the Spanish ever since, leaving the people of Gibraltar suspended between a rock and a hard place.

Gibraltar became a key strategic base for the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars and played an important role during the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Its commanding position at the entrance to the Mediterranean from the Atlantic has maintained the Rock’s standing as a critical military base for the British armed forces. Tourists from the many cruise ships who visit Gibraltar and climb its narrow streets, or take the cable car, to see the famous Barbary macaques, will recognise the significance of the harbour and airport far below and understand why the Spanish and in particular the right-wing Vox party, would love to get their hands on both. 

Gibraltarians were shaking in their shoes at the thought of the Vox party entering government. The autonomous government of Gibraltar filed a criminal complaint in the courts in Madrid claiming that Vox was issuing statements "clearly designed to create an atmosphere of hatred among Spaniards towards Gibraltarians." The criminal complaint stated that Vox's leaders had described Gibraltar as "a leech" or "a parasite," along with accusing the British territory of holding Spanish workers "hostage" and of being a den of "money launderers" and "criminals." The UK government was also nervously watching the outcome of Sunday’s Spanish election. There is a general view in Whitehall that Spanish politicians who refer to Gibraltar disparagingly as a ‘British colony’, conveniently omit to mention their own Spanish colonies of Ceuta and Melilla on the Moroccan coast of North Africa.

Although the Rock often seems more British than Britain, 96% of Gibraltarians voted to remain part of the EU in the 2016 Brexit referendum. Nevertheless, like Scotland, they have had to accept Brexit by default, potentially facing cross-border issues similar to those in Northern Ireland, although obviously on a much smaller scale. In fact, there are only two entry points to Gibraltar, one for vehicles and one for pedestrians. Those who enter on foot have to cross the runway to get into town. Although the population of Gibraltar is only 33,000, they rely on 15,000 Spanish workers crossing the border every day. 

When Britain withdrew from the EU on 31st January 2020, in a specially negotiated deal, between the EU, UK and Spain, it was agreed that Gibraltar would remain in the EU’s Schengen area, enabling continued access without border controls. Gibraltar airport was included in the agreement, and it was stipulated that all border checks on Spain’s behalf, would be performed by Frontex, the EU’s border and coast guard agency. The agreement was to run for a period of 4 years, after which the EU and UK were to enter into a new treaty with Spain. 

In a race against time to deliver the treaty prior to the July 23 general election, the UK’s Foreign Secretary James Cleverly was in Madrid on 12 July to meet his Spanish counterpart José Manuel Albares and Gibraltar’s Chief Minister Fabian Picardo, in an attempt to seal a pre-election deal with the socialist government. The deal, which has the backing of the European Commission, would see the removal of the fence at the land border with Gibraltar and the relocation of customs checks to Gibraltar’s airport and port. The fence has been the source of many historical disputes. 

Both foreign ministers expressed the view that a deal was close to agreement. Cleverly said he was sure it would be “possible” to reach a treaty that respects both the UK’s and Spain’s respective positions on Gibraltar’s sovereignty, although Gibraltar’s Chief Minister Picardo was a little less optimistic, adding: “We cannot pretend that 300 years of disagreement can disappear in a moment.” Whitehall and Gibraltar will both now be hoping that a deal can be finalised under the caretaker premiership of Pedro Sánchez.

One of the most famous legends about Gibraltar is the idea that if the Barbary macaques ever leave the Rock, it will cease to be British. The legend arose apparently after a night-time attack on the Rock by land and sea by the French and Spanish, which wakened the monkeys who alerted the British night watch, who thwarted the invasion. It was a folktale that Winston Churchill believed very strongly. The macaques, which are the only European population of monkeys, have been on the Rock for as long as the British and even longer than the Spanish, and look set to stay for a few centuries to come.