By Jonathan Saul
LONDON (Reuters) – Gibraltar has extended port facilities to be able to handle more ships carrying goods as part of contingency plans if Britain leaves the European Union without an agreement, the British territory’s maritime minister said on Friday.
With a population of just over 30,000 people and a land area of nearly 7 square kilometres, Gibraltar voted overwhelming to remain in the EU in Britain’s 2016 referendum.
There have been concerns that Gibraltar’s open land border with Spain would be affected by Brexit, especially given long- running tensions with Madrid.
Spain ceded the port at the mouth of the Mediterranean to Britain in 1713 after a war, but claims sovereignty over it.
Gilbert Licudi, minister with responsibility for port and maritime affairs, said that after carrying out infrastructure work, Gibraltar’s port could handle a greater volume from container ships and other vessels bringing in food and medicine.
He added that lorries Gibraltar could exit by ferry to the nearby Spanish port of Algeciras if administrative checks increased at the land border.
“We are now ready to be able to accommodate a greater amount of traffic through the port if necessary,” Licudi told Reuters on a visit to London.
“There is an alternative route into Gibraltar should the need to use that happen.”
Gibraltar is not in the EU’s customs union or bound by the bloc’s VAT or excise rules, which is likely to alleviate some of the problems that the British mainland could face.
The British government outlined its worst-case scenario if the country leaves the European Union at the end of October without a deal, including severe disruption to cross-Channel port routes and a shortage of some fresh foods in a document released on Wednesday.
Gibraltar is the leading ship refuelling hub in the Mediterranean and Licudi expected that trade to continue.
“Ships that call into Gibraltar for bunker supplies, crew changes do not do so because we are an EU port but because we are a convenient, safe, reliable port for those services,” he said.
“We expect cruise companies to continue to come to Gibraltar, Brexit or no Brexit,” he added.
Three years after the referendum, which “Leave” voters narrowly won, Britain is undergoing its worst political crisis in decades and it remains unclear how, when or even if the country will split from the European Union.
(Editing by Giles Elgood)