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On Main Street, unease about life after Brexit

On Main Street last week, a British visitor from Hull who voted Leave in the Brexit referendum said she had changed her mind.

After two years of political chaos and uncertainty, leaving the EU no longer seemed like a good prospect for 59-year old Mary Brown.

Mrs Brown was made redundant from her council job after the banking crisis in 2008 and has since struggled to find full-time employment.

She now cares for her ill mum and says she is worried about the impact that leaving the EU will have on their lives.

In common with many other people in the UK and here, she thinks Brexit is a mess.

“We thought Brexit was going to fix our problems,” she said.

“It has in fact made things worse.”

“The main nurse who cared for my mum ended up leaving, she’s gone back to Italy.”

“Now we’re worried about a lack of medical supplies, and the impact that’s going to have on my mum.”

“I wasn’t sure what to vote at the time, but I definitely regret voting for Brexit.”

A stroll down Main Street brings up mixed views about Brexit and the progress of negotiations, but one common thread: people are nervous about what lies in store.

With the March 2019 deadline for withdrawal fast approaching, many locals are hoping for greater clarity from the Government of Gibraltar on what lies ahead.

The Gibraltar Government has vowed to leave no stone unturned when it comes to Brexit negotiations, and is working closely with the UK Government to secure the Rock’s post-Brexit future.

One part of the strategy has been to negotiate Gibraltar’s continued access into the UK market, which accounts for most of the business done by Gibraltar-based companies under EU single market rules. Ensuring that continuity after withdrawal reassured businesses here, although the government, as one would expect, has drawn up contingency plans too.

The other half of the strategy includes discrete discussions with the UK, Spain and other EU countries to explore ways of ensuring border fluidity after Brexit, and to find ways of cooperating for the mutual benefit of communities on either side of the border.
But the sensitivity of these talks against the backdrop of the wider Brexit negotiations means little detail of their progress or otherwise has been confirmed to date.

That, in turn, makes people nervous.

“The biggest problem here is that not even the British Government knows what’s happening with Brexit,” said John Charles Guy, a taxi driver.

“They are not making announcements on their negotiations. The concern Gibraltar has is that…they could be using us to reach a better deal, and if that is the case, I think the people of Gibraltar should know about this.”

“We ultimately come under the British government and they have a responsibility towards us to safeguard our future, as much as it pains me to say this.”

He believes the Gibraltar Government should share any information it may have which could “affect the people of Gibraltar or their way of life” as soon as possible.

Mr Guy, 56, voted Remain in 2016, and said he would do so again if another referendum were to be held.

And he is “100% sure” Britain and Gibraltar would vote to stay in the EU if there was another vote at the end of the negotiation process.

As a taxi driver, Mr Guy said he has carried thousands of passengers since the outcome of the EU referendum.

“I have yet to hear anyone say that Brexit was a good thing,” he said.

“Everyone who mentions it says it’s a sheer mess.”

But whereas 96% of voters in Gibraltar chose Remain over Leave in the 2016 referendum, events since then have seen some people change their mind.

In particular, the controversial Clause 24 veto granted by the EU to Spain has rankled with Gibraltarians. The clause, which is rejected by both the UK and Gibraltar, purports to give Spain a say on whether Gibraltar will be included in any transitional arrangements and in the future relationship between the EU and the UK.

The UK Government and the Gibraltar Government have insisted repeatedly that Gibraltar is covered by the negotiations and the transition period.

But the EU’s backing for the Spanish position has left a bitter taste for many.

Nicholas Canepa, 30, was not in Europe at the time of the referendum and missed the opportunity to vote. Had he been here, he would have voted to Remain in June 2016. Now though, he would vote Leave if another referendum were to be held.

Asked why, he said the answer lay in the EU’s willingness to give Spain the Clause 24 veto.

Neither was he too concerned about the general uncertainty surrounding the Brexit process.

“I don’t think it’s going to affect us,” he said.

“The Government of Gibraltar will find a way to work around it.”

“Nothing has changed yet and I don’t think anything will change.”

Mr Canepa works in the shipping industry, a sector he believes will be largely escape any negative impact as a result of withdrawal.

But others whose businesses rely on visitors to Gibraltar are concerned that Brexit could lead to restrictions at the border.

One local 63-year old man who runs a small business in Gibraltar – he preferred not to give his name - recalled the time of the border closure in 1969.

“There will be serious knock-on effects, not just on businesses but on the community as well,” he said.

“I think we will be going back to the closed frontier days if Brexit goes through.”

“Gibraltar is not equipped to deal with this immediately, but we’ll have to adapt like we did when the border was closed last time.”

“We’d have to start looking for alternatives and obtaining supplies immediately will be a problem.”

The Spanish Government has said it will not seek to exploit Brexit in pursuit of its sovereignty aspirations, not least because the UK and Gibraltar have made clear that sovereignty is not up for discussion.

Madrid has also signalled a willingness to work constructively with the UK and Gibraltar to find practical solutions to the challenges created by Brexit, and particularly to ensure that people and goods can move across the border as fluidly as they do now.

But Gibraltar’s recent history and its often fraught relations with Spain mean that on Main Street, there is a healthy degree of scepticism in the face of such statements.

“We never know what our friends over in Spain will do to us,” the businessman said.

“It depends on which government is in power in Spain.”

For many shop owners, any restrictions at the border would quickly translate into staff and logistics problems.

One 32-year old manager at a jewellery shop – again, she preferred not to be named in print - said half of his staff commuted in from Spain.

“I simply can’t find people in Gibraltar who want to work in retail,” she said.

“But it’s not just about finding people who are willing to work. We also have the issue of suppliers and stock coming in from suppliers based in Spain or elsewhere.”

Like others, she was keen to have a firmer idea of how things will evolve in the coming months and bemoaned the lack of information.

“I don’t blame the Gibraltar Government though,” she said.

“They are at the mercy of the UK Government, who haven’t got a clue what they are doing.”

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