Unite has called on the British and Spanish governments to ease tensions over Gibraltar, after the two nations became embroiled in a row over the UK territory’s future after Brexit.
Last week the EU made clear that Spain would be offered a veto on how any post-Brexit deal would apply to the Rock.
There are concerns that the move would open the door to Spanish attempts to claim sovereignty over Gibraltar. The veto could also be used to strangle Gibraltar’s thriving economy and diminish the rights of the territory’s workers once it leaves the EU.
Gibraltar’s economy is closely linked to the EU, with more than 12,000 people crossing back and forth between Gibraltar and Spain every day. Unite has 7,500 members who work in Gibraltar.
Responding to the EU’s inclusion of a Spanish veto in its draft position on the Brexit talks, former Tory leader, Michael Howard, said that Theresa May would be willing to go to war to protect the territory.
Theresa May has since tried to dampen the row, saying that Gibraltar’s position would be decided through “jaw-jaw” not war-war.
The spat highlights the difficult situation that Gibraltar – the site of historic territorial contentions between the UK and Spain – now finds itself in.
Although Gibraltarians voted by a landslide to remain part of the UK in 2002, the headland also voted to remain in the EU by a 96 per cent majority.
“We’re taken aback by how the EU are undertaking the current negotiations in respect to Gibraltar. We understand that they’re siding with Spain because it is going to remain an EU member, but we expect them to deal with us as part of the UK,” said Fred Martin, Unite’s executive secretary for the Gibraltar area committee.
“We need to see that the UK government is not going to accept any deal if it doesn’t apply to us. However, while we appreciate that there’s a strength of feeling to what Gibraltar means to the UK, comments such as those made by Michael Howard need to be expressed in a manner that doesn’t close doors on us.”
Instead of sabre-rattling, the UK government needs to represent the interests of the Rock, said Martin.
He explained, “We want a free-flowing border, not just for the economy, but for social ties and for the health and social care workers who go in and out every day. We need that lifeblood and it’s an issue that could be extremely detrimental to Gibraltar if it’s not solved.”
Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, called on the UK and Spanish governments to ease the fears of Unite members in Gibraltar.
“Unite members, Gibraltar residents, Gibraltarians and EU residents all cross the border between Spain and the Rock every day, keeping the local economy strong. The people of the Rock don’t want sabre-rattling and war-mongering by some on the right of the Conservative party,” McCluskey said.
“Unite’s many members on Gibraltar – those from the Rock, Spain, and of other European nationalities – will be heartened to hear that the government of Gibraltar has said it will respect the rights of existing Spanish and EU workers in Gibraltar.
“I am calling on the London and Madrid governments to follow suit. Do not play around with people’s lives, rights and futures, but sign up to the call of the government of Gibraltar for ‘dialogue not vetoes’.”
Unite national officer for Gibraltar, Kevin Coyne, said Unite members in Gibraltar work in a range of occupations, including public services, logistics, construction and banking and that the union would fight to protect their interests.
Coyne explained that current tensions were a resurfacing of past disagreements.
“The Spanish had a real play time with the border not so long ago, which created five hour long queues, and under General Franco the border was completely closed. Now the Spanish government is gearing up to those kinds of tricks again,” Coyne said.
“But there is real solidarity and understanding from Spanish workers’ organisations, who we have developed close links with, over the border issues and the right to self-determination.
“Everyone thinks that Gibraltar is a “little Englander” issue but the territory itself is a beacon for progressive politics – for instance there’s no anti-trade union legislation and there are bank holidays on May Day and Worker’s Memorial Day.”
Coyne said it was imperative that the needs and wants of Gibraltar’s inhabitants and workers be respected and accommodated – including the wish to remain part of the UK – and called for the British and Spanish governments to work towards those ends.