The Gibraltarian border. All photos by Alexis Yamagata
A lot has changed for Gibraltar in the past month. The slab of land at Spain's southern tip has gone from being an expat theme park famous for its red phone boxes and monkeys to being the potential site of a flashpoint between the British and Spanish governments.
But while the chest-puffing scenes of Spanish fishing "armadas" facing off against British warships has been good fun from a media point of view, it's detracted from the fact that the real issue surrounding the tension over Gibraltar isn't one of sovereignty at all. Instead, all this commotion is merely acting as a smokescreen for the Spanish government to hide behind while they deal with the fallout from a pretty serious corruption scandal.
Since January, senior members of Spain's ruling People's Party have had to bat away allegations that their members benefited directly and illegally from the creation of the housing bubble and its eventual crash. While the case is still in the courts, the party’s ex-treasurer has admitted to keeping a separate set of books documenting cash kickbacks paid to cabinet members by construction companies. The government has so far refused to stand down, but it’s not unthinkable that an international media outcry could force its hand.
A car being checked at the Gibraltarian border
This doesn’t really suit the interests of the troika of organizations who have leant Spain a shit-ton of money—the IMF, the EC, and the ECB—or the balance sheets of Spanish companies such as Telefonica or Banco Santander, who are understandably nervous about the prospect of a third party winning an open general election and tearing up current debt agreements. So what better time for a big story involving warships to invoke some national pride? For a scandal-ridden government of a crisis-hit country, Gibraltar presents the perfect high-profile political news story to turn on whenever it needs to deflect attention from more serious issues.
Madrid’s official line on the tighter border controls is that they’re an attempt to crack down on the black-market trade in duty-free cigarettes. But it's a justification that—while seemingly legitimate—hasn't garnered much in the way of support from the local population.
Last year, Gibraltar imported 175 million packets of cigarettes. Which means they've either got their toddlers on two packs a day, or they’re selling an awful lot to visitors. There’s a five-packs-per-person limit in force, which people find imaginative ways to break, either through taping packets to their body under their clothes (one branch of Morrisons at the border even has a changing room on site), driving them across in secret compartments in their cars or—if they enjoy injecting a bit of panache into their smuggling—by jet ski.
The government estimates that 750,000 packets were smuggled over the border last year, meaning a hefty amount in lost tax revenue. But while nobody is denying the scope and illegality of the trade, for many of the residents in this area of Spain, smuggling is also a lifeline.
Some of the cigarettes Gibraltar has been importing in unbelievably huge numbers
Just across the border from the Rock, the town of La Linea de La Concepción has one of the highest unemployment levels in Spain. Accordingly, smuggling is one of the only avenues open to those without a job. “I don’t see the harm in it at all,” states Alexis, a first-year student at Manchester University who grew up in the area and is back for the summer.
“My friend lost his job at a recycling plant last week after three months of not being paid," he continued. "What else is he meant to do?” And what about the risks involved, I asked? “I think, if they catch you twice, they can impound your car. But I don’t know anything about the fines.”
It’s not just that it’s hard to see the moral problem with making money off a product that is widely viewed as being taxed too highly, it’s that—like in any border town—a black market in white goods is a way of life. “Grannies and kids do it here. I really don’t understand what all the fuss is about,” Alexis told me.
The crackdown at the border has also affected the legitimate businesses of local Spaniards. La Linea’s mayor, Gemma Araujo, has been one of the few politicians to speak openly against the tightening of controls. During an appearance on a televised debate show last week, she made a case for the goods and services provided to Gibraltarian residents by local Spanish workers, using the rather unsexy trade of "door making" as a case in point. She also pointed out that everyone in the area has a vested interest in ending the standoff, going so far as to allege that several local members of the Spanish government were earning a second living from online gambling firms based in Gibraltar.
So, with all of that in place—as well as the impracticality of a return to Spanish sovereignty after Gibraltar’s citizens voted in favor of keeping UK citizenship in a 2002 referendum, and its obvious benefit as an economic boon to the area—it's easy to see that the dredging up of this drama might be about more than fishing and cigarettes.
Follow Paul on Twitter: @pauldotsimon
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