“What I'd give for four more kilometres!” said chief minister Fabian Picardo, about the restrictions that Gibraltar's geography places on its development. “And what I'd give not to have 180 border crossings!” responded Londonderry MP Gregory Campbell at a recent meeting in London. Mr Picardo and deputy chief minister Dr Joseph Garcia were meeting the parliamentary Northern Ireland Committee to discuss Brexit and the similarities and differences between the Northern Irish and Gibraltar borders.
There are significant differences in their situations. The frontier between Gibraltar and Spain is 1.2 kilometres, with one crossing point for pedestrians and another for commercial vehicles. Northern Ireland's stretches for 400 kilometres and has nearly 200 crossing points. Gibraltar has never been part of the Customs Union and is not part of Schengen, so its controls are necessary.
The Irish politicians were very interested in the technology which Gibraltar uses, especially to monitor the movement of around 13,000 people between 7.30 and 9.30am. There are 15 high resolution cameras to check pedestrians crossing the border, and 17 checking vehicle number plates in real time.
The Northern Irish politicians believe that their relationship with Dublin is better than that between Gibraltar and Spain. Picardo stressed that on a human level there is understanding, but Spain's claim to sovereignty impedes further cooperation.
Another difference pointed out by the chief minister is that the Gibraltar economy is based on services, particularly finance, insurance and Internet gaming. It imports food and consumer goods from Spain or the UK. The border between the two Irelands has to be crossed half a dozen times a day just in the process of producing a bottle of Bailey's. Its economy is based on farming, agriculture and industrial goods.
“The only thing Gibraltar is losing is freedom of movement,” explained Picardo. The British government has promised that there will be no 'hard' border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, and there will be 'no friction', but nobody has explained how to avoid border controls similar to those of Gibraltar, at its nearly 200 crossing points, if Ireland remains in the Customs Union and Northern Ireland leaves this common tariff area alongside the UK.
The committee asked the chief minister why Gibraltar didn't become part of the Customs Union when the UK joined the former CEE in 1972. “Because we had no frontier with Europe,” he answered. “Spain wasn't in the EC and it had closed the border. Gibraltar, isolated, developed its own taxation system, and so it is actually better equipped than the UK to deal with Brexit.”