By William Mills
Gibraltar-Already A Part Of Spain? asks whether it is truly independent as most of its citizens already live in nearby Spain.
On a Saturday evening Gibraltar was empty. It seemed everyone had gone home to Spain.
The real contention seems to be over taxation.
Some of Gibraltar’s economy is based on selling souvenirs, mostly to cruise liner passengers, which are VAT free and therefore can be sold more cheaply than in neighbouring Spain.
In military terms, at 1,800 acres, most of which is steep, inhospitable rockface, it is too small to be viable.
Last summer I sailed along the Spanish coastline to Gibraltar which lies at the end of the Mediterranean Sea where it reaches the Atlantic Ocean.
Gibraltar, a British Overseas Territory, is a 2.6 square mile enclave, and is dominated by a 1,400 foot high rock.
In mythology Gibraltar was were ancient Greek god Hercules placed his pillars to hold up the sky at the end of the world.
After the barmy Mediterranean weather the real shock was rounding Gibraltar Point into extremely strong winds blowing off the Atlantic. It felt like we were back on the real sea after having been sailing on a large, but pleasant pond.
Having grown up on post WWII adventure stories I thought Gibraltar was a huge British military base bravely fighting off the Spanish. Yet on arrival the profusion of Union Jacks flying off every possible vantage point gave a look similar to an Israeli West Bank settlement.
Rounding up into the bay I had expected to see at least one Royal Navy carrier and a row of other warships rafted together similar to the sights one expects on a visit to Portsmouth Harbour.
In reality one Police launch, no longer than our boat, chugged past. Was this the extent of our visible naval presence?
When asked, the Gibraltar Government press office said that apart from some RAF transport personnel at the airport there were no British troops based on the Rock anymore. Space at the airport did seem a bit restricted for modern, large aircraft.
We moored in Queensway Quay Marina which our pilot book assured us was the last word in yachting luxury.
Enclosing the waterfront were rows of impressive, but empty looking new houses, perhaps built for non-resident tax exiles rather than needy locals some of whom lived in tenement blocks further up the hill.
The onshore facilities included a swank row of exclusive looking restaurants which after a week of on board cuisine looked particularly appealing giving Gibraltar an upmarket feel.
The next morning I realised as I explored Gibraltar’s main shopping street that it simply wasn’t a Riviera shopping extravaganza.
However there were plenty of shops for cruise line passengers to buy souvenirs and duty free items from along with a great selection of lunchtime pubs and cafes.
Britain acquired Gibraltar by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 from Spain at the end of the War of Spanish Succession having captured it in 1704. Spain has fought for its return off and on ever since.
Until the 20th century cannons had a range of little more than a mile. Gibraltar was a useful raiding base and the Rock’s height made it a perfect viewing platform in the age of telescopes.
It was not until 1930 that guns were installed with sufficient range to reach across the Straits.
The idea that Gibraltar’s location gave Britain the ability to control all the shipping entering or leaving the Mediterranean might have been wishful thinking.
Post WWII documents show 62 German U-boats having successfully entered the Mediterranean via the Straits of Gibraltar.
Whether or not it still has a role as a listening post and radar station the British Government, responsible for the Rock’s Policing and Defence, weren’t saying.
The Gibraltarians already living there had their own culture blended from previous rulers hailing from Spain and Morocco. Their own language, Llanito is a unique blend of English, French, and Spanish.
What of Gibraltar’s economy? We passed some of it on the way There was a large number of ships at anchor on the Mediterranean side.
Every ocean going vessel had a smaller ship tied alongside up loading supplies of every description; food, fuel, maintenance and repairs.
Gibraltar seems to be the shipping equivalent of a motorway service station occupying the Mediterranean’s prime spot.
Cruise liners regularly visit to give passengers a run ashore, however I counted only four hotels in the territory and it isn’t really the place for a sunny beach Mediterranean holiday being surrounded by cool Atlantic waters flowing eastwards into the Mediterranean.
Due to a difference in salinity the outgoing westwards current starts at 90 metres down leaving the surface waters chilly.
We caught a local bus to a small stretch of prepared beach. A few older children were playing with the water toys but when I reached knee depth it was time to turn back being so cold even though the August air temperature was over 35 C.
Whilst a number of companies were offering day trips to see the marine life they can hardly be counted as a major economic activity.
Yet there is scope here for expansion because the Atlantic brings in a profusion of whales, dolphins and big fish. Sailing a yacht across to Africa must be a real thrill with so much to see.
In Queensway Quay marina the shelter is excellent.
There seemed to be further building works afoot for yet another marina although the territory doesn’t have the boats or marine industry to support it as yet.
A short walk from our marina takes us to the cable car. It is modern and swiftly ascended the 1,400 feet to the top of the Rock. On a clear day Africa is visible.
The cable car top station has a café, toilets and souvenirs. It’s possible to return by cable car or walk back down the tarmac road.
I chose the later. It turned out to be a long way. The monkeys which live semi wild in the undergrowth are a little scary-the signs saying, ‘caution-they bite’ didn’t help.
Fortunately there were other tourists around and a young American woman, half my age, walked a little way with me after seeing my apprehension.
Everywhere one turns there is a concealed WWII era hidden pillbox. At the top is the O’Hara battery which consists of a pair of 9.2 inch guns installed by the British in 1930.
Its signboard claims a range of 29,000 yards across the 25,500 wide Straits. Before, presumably ships could slip by out of range on the far shore.
On Saturday evening we decided to go out. Gibraltar’s main shopping street has a number of pubs offering bar meals at reasonable prices yet they were all shutting around 8pm.
I suddenly realised what all the cars parked in multiple car parks were about. Gibraltar is similar to the City of London in that while people commute to work, very few actually live there.
A short walk away is Spain with unlimited land and housing costs a third of those on the Rock.
The only dedicated restaurants were either in the hotels or the marina from where we had started out from.
An insider said the cruise liners which provide much of the custom for the duty free shops tends to be gone by the evenings.
The waterfront luxury houses looked unlived in leaving me wondering whether these had been sold to tax exiles to establish a residency claim.
The Gibraltar Government strongly denied that they were a tax haven. Yet with companies basing their online betting operations there the words ‘legal loophole’ kept on coming up.
The Spanish periodically slow the traffic with border checks on cars making commuting time consuming. They want joint sovereignty with Britain and tax harmonisation.
The Gibraltarians by way of referendum voted to stay British, although a local paper hinted plans were afoot for the Government of Gibraltar to apply for UN member status.
In recent years there has been a big clampdown on tax havens for the super rich and they may be a thing of the past.
If there is a normalisation of relations it will enable poorer Gibraltarians to benefit from lower Spanish housing costs available.
At the moment some fear that they might lose their jobs or pensions if they move across the border forcing them to live in cramped accommodation while the luxury villas built at huge cost on reclaimed land remain empty.
Gibraltar present status benefits the property developers and the sentimentalists. It is a museum to Britain’s imperial past and an enjoyable run ashore for passing seafarers.
If its tax status was harmonised the posh apartments might come onto the local market at knock down prices.
Gibraltar’s location will always attract its shipping customers and its potential as a yachting and marine wildlife haven are still largely untapped markets which could expand rapidly with a fully opened border giving access to Spanish hotels.
Perhaps then the Spanish Government might be persuaded to provide the modern air and road links needed to develop tourist based industries.