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La Línea takes first step in bid to become an autonomous city

By María Jesús Corrales Martín

La Línea de la Concepción has taken its first steps into what its mayor, Juan Franco, called “terra incognita”, approving a council resolution seeking permission from Madrid to sample citizens’ views on La Linea becoming an ‘autonomous city’. The motion passed with the support of the majority of councillors, with PSOE members abstaining.

In a constructive debate between the party in power and the opposition over how to overcome the economic and social problems strangling the city, Helenio Fernández, spokesperson for the ruling La Línea 100x100, said the “public consultation” sought a way of “granting La Línea all the tools which would allow the city to face its problems and find solutions… to breathe, for this city to live, progress and develop itself.”

He reminded the gathered councillors that the only time that the Spanish state showed special interest in La Línea was an economic charter in 1997, which barely lasted five years.

He went on to recap the relationship that La Línea has with Gibraltar and all the “national interest” reasons for the municipality to be on a separate footing to the rest of the Campo area, including special fiscal advantages.

Among the reasons Mr Fernández gave, he highlighted the fact that “[La Línea] is the only place in Europe which shares a border with a foreign enclave that, according to the United Nations, is awaiting decolonisation”.

He mentioned the city’s economic dependency on Gibraltar and the movement across the frontier of thousands of Spanish and foreign nationals for work, movement that requires measures “of security, border control and mobility of the highest order”.

“La Línea is sited next to an isthmus over which Spain claims sovereignty,” Mr Fernández said, an aspect that overshadowed Spanish central government policy in matters relating to La Línea.

Furthermore, he argued that the city itself, as an autonomous community, should represent its own interests in talks with Gibraltar, removing the Junta de Andalucía from the table, an organ that “throughout its history, has not shown any concern for what is in the interest of the city”.

He also suggested adapting the city’s “tax and fiscal regulations to those of our neighbours in Gibraltar, with whom La Línea coexists, in an enclave where tax requirements are more relaxed”.

Laying out his case, Mr Fernández drew a parallel between the debate on the motion and the steps taken by a past mayor, Lutgardo López Muñoz, in 1869, when the process separating the municipality of La Línea from that of San Roque began.

On this occasion, the vote last Thursday empowered the city council to ask permission of the Spanish Council of Ministers to consult the citizens – a local referendum in practice, if not in law - and ask if they were in favour of making their municipality an autonomous city.

Afterwards, if the answer was ‘yes’, the result would have sufficient legitimacy, under the Spanish Constitution, to propose La Línea’s request to parliament, senate and the government. That proposal would then have to be approved by all three bodies.

Should the government agree to the public consultation, the process would take six to eight months.

The resolution passed on Thursday has yet to be inspected by the public and stakeholders and any suggested revisions must then be passed by the elected councillors.

In the event that the Council of Ministers does not give permission for the consultation, the local government has already announced a willingness to take their case to Spain’s Supreme Court.

The PSOE councillors abstained in this week’s vote. Juan Chacón, their spokesperson, said “our party will not stand in the way of the citizens participating in the processes and the important questions,” but argued that the price of such an “adventurous undertaking” could be counted in terms of social and economic divide.

“We are not worried about the consultation or the question, but about who will pay the price for resorting to this action,” he said.

“Will the council shoulder the costs of a war against the state?”

He added that the PSOE did not agree with making La Línea an autonomous city and that they could not conceive of a desire to cease being Andalucían or part of the Campo de Gibraltar, even if only administratively.

Furthermore, the party draws a parallel with the autonomous cities of Ceuta and Melilla and how high rates of unemployment and social, economic and educational deficiencies seemed to follow the granting of that status.

Mr Chacón also argued that taking on more responsibilities, such as education and health, and how to restructure local government to face those challenges would be an obstacle in themselves.

“We cannot pick our autonomy from a menu,” he said.

As a counterproposal, the PSOE argued for the reinstatement of the special economic charter - which injected 100 million euros per year into the municipality between 1997 and 2002 - an increase in self-government on the grounds of the unique nature of the city, and measures such as creating neighbourhood councils to allow for a greater focus on socioeconomically deprived areas.

“We do not believe that there should be more division, such as in Cataluña. The process in La Línea will be fixed with dialogue,” Mr Chacón insisted.

The Partido Popular, which has only one councillor in La Linea, did not attend the debate.

In his conclusion, the mayor, Juan Franco, highlighted the fact that “there is no legal structure within Spain’s laws or administrative regulations that backs the concept of municipal uniqueness,” which is why the council has chosen to explore this “terra incognita” outside of the normal procedures.

“Not one of the more than 8,000 municipalities of Spain has attempted this journey,” he said, admitting that it was “more than likely that the Council of Ministers will refuse to authorise the consultation”.

As to the cost of the process, he also admitted that there would be a price to pay, but added that the future prosperity of the city was worth working towards, and he assured that sedition was not the aim of the proposal.

“Those who intend to characterise what we are proposing are trying to discredit the proposal. I have no intention of ending up in prison, or in Waterloo [a reference to former Catalan Generalitat president Carles Puigdemont’s home in exile], or disqualified,” he said.

But he did ask the parties across the political spectrum to “challenge us and convince us to stick to ordinary law to solve these problems,” which he listed as a special arrangement for civil servants assigned to La Línea, different arrangements for Spanish and foreign employees working in Gibraltar to keep up with their pensions and a special fiscal regime for the city which, he concluded, “can only be regulated by an authorised autonomous body”.

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