How Solidarity Crossed the Border in Corona-Hit Gibraltar

For centuries, politics on the rock of Gibraltar has been dominated by the imperialist rivalry between Britain and Spain. But faced with the COVID-19 pandemic, communities built solidarity across the disputed border — insisting that the demands of public healthcare stood above the battle for flags and territory.   

The Rock of Gibraltar stands behind La Linea de la Concepcion city on April 4, 2017 in La Linea de la Concepcion, Spain. Pablo Blazquez Dominguez / Getty Images

In recent days, right-wing outlets in London have portrayed mounting tensions over Spain’s relations with Gibraltar, a renewed war of words over  the British territory to the south of Andalusia. Yet the feeling on the ground doesn’t reflect such nationalistic posturing. Rather, what we’re today seeing is a climate of cross-border solidarity — perhaps for the first time since Gibraltar aided left-wing republican refugees during the Spanish Civil War.

For centuries, the territory known as “the Rock” has been a geo-political football. While there are few consolations amid the public health crisis and economic catastrophe triggered by COVID-19, some communities have at least had to acknowledge their material interdependence.

Southern Spain begins north of the Gibraltar border, just a short walk from the Rock’s airport; the land border consists of high barbed wire fencing and an imposing black gate. COVID-19 public health measures blocked access to most civilians for almost three months, with those restrictions only being lifted this Wednesday.

In times of political calm, crossing the border is an easy process. But when a government bangs on the sovereignty drum — and particularly when right-wing governments in Madrid see an opportunity to activate their reactionary base — this can become more complicated. Families and individuals looking to leave the 2.6 square mile British territory sometimes endure queues lasting as long as seven hours.

On the face of it, this is merely an unfortunate annoyance. But national borders are riddled with symbolic meaning. Spain’s fascist dictator Francisco Franco strangled the economy in Gibraltar by closing the border in 1969. It was not fully reopened until 1985, as post-transition Spain took up a position in the EEC, which was soon to become the EU.

Even over forty years since the end of Franco’s reign, the physical dividing structure represents the strangulation and submission of the fascist era. It is one of the anachronistic hangovers of the Franco era, like the fasces symbolism on the emblem for the Guardia Civil (Spain’s military force with extensive police duties). The physical border reaffirms the “Britishness” of Gibraltar and the “Spanishness” that lies on the other side, and vice versa. For those old enough to remember being separated from their families during the 1970s, it is a magnet for trauma and anger. For those born after the re-opening of the border, it is a representation of darker times in the community’s shared collective memory.

This structure, however, has deep economic implications today. Spain has struggled to make a substantial recovery from the 2008 financial crisis. the Andalusia region was arguably hit hardest, with unemployment levels hovering around the mid-30s percent for several years. While Gibraltar kept corporate tax extremely low and built luxury developments, it also provided increased employment for workers crossing the border. Roughly 15,000 people travel from Spain into Gibraltar for work on a daily basis.

What keeps the economy of small Gibraltar alive, in actual fact, is the labor of Spanish and other, mostly EU, nationals who worked in sectors from construction to healthcare. Likewise, the opportunity of Gibraltar gives some hope to one of the most underfunded and austerity-ridden areas of Spain, as a source of potential jobs.

Kitchen Table Issues

But the coronavirus crisis has raised the consciousness of different communities’ interdependence — and the need for cross-border solidarity. As Unidas Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias put it, the crisis has forced a return to discussion of “cosas de comer” (the closest English phrase would be “kitchen table issues”).

While Iglesias’s left-populist party is now part of Spain’s government, the sentiment was shared by the leader of an anti-establishment party on the Gibraltar side, Marlene Hassan Nahon MP. For her, “the coronavirus pandemic was a stark reminder that frontiers are a political construct. Many of our essential workers crossed the border and worked with us, side by side, at the height of the outbreak.”  For her, COVID-19 has motivated a “renewed spirit”, moving away from “issues of national pride and identity” and focusing on “the things that really matter to people,” like “welfare, civil rights, and the fight against climate change.”

Driven by necessity, the neighboring governments have had to improvise to keep the frontier fluid. On the Gibraltar side, some hotels have provided accommodation to workers; Helder Silva of the Casais construction company says that the Portuguese-based firm has about 350 to 400 employees (thus making it one of Gibraltar’s biggest employers), most of them now in such conditions. Gibraltar-based GP Dr Elaine Flores adds that the site that usually serves as accommodation for students at the University of Gibraltar is now being used as temporary housing for non-resident healthcare professionals.

A former Gibraltar Government Minister, Jaime Netto, suggested  that the low rate of COVID-19 cases in the area “permits some sectors of the economy to function, particularly in health and social care where there is much dependence on Spanish labor.” Netto, who now lives on the Spanish side, comes from a family of influential trade unionists and labor organizers; although he served under the moderate Social Democrat party (GSD), he is a self-described Marxist (his Twitter handle insists “The free development of each is the precondition for the free development of all”).

As Minister for Employment under the GSD government, Netto not only extended the minimum wage to cover both public and private sector workers, but also closed the loopholes allowing for pay discrimination against cross-border workers; his brother Michael has similarly been advocating for their cause in the local Unite branch (one of the largest UK trade unions). Their father, Jose, was a prominent agitator for labor rights in the region, playing a leading role in achieving wage parity for locals in the 1970s, when the class divide between the colonial population and the civilians had perpetuated severe income inequality.

This is a legacy of solidarity important still today, faced with nationalist diversions. In the words of the late Spanish communist leader Julio Anguita, who died on May 16, “when someone is defending something that exploits them, they have reached the lowest level of humanity. They kiss the boot of what steps on them.” The boot, for the small towns neighboring the border, is not only the frontier itself, but its use as a tool of distraction and xenophobia by right-wing elites who impose austerity and ignore unemployment.

With a left-wing coalition government in Spain and a devastating pandemic, there is little use in distractions from the “cosas de comer” so central to keeping us going. If the coronavirus and its effects cross borders, our solidarity must do so, too.