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Brexit: Spanish people working in Gibraltar cautiously optimistic after last-minute Schengen deal

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By Jorge Gutiérrez
The number of EU citizens working in Gibraltar now totals around 14,000.
The number of EU citizens working in Gibraltar now totals around 14,000.   -   Copyright  Steve Parsons/AP
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Despite Brexit, the number of EU citizens, many of them Spanish, who work in Gibraltar has grown from 12,000 to 14,000 in the last four years.

But uncertainty about the future rules governing the border between Gibraltar and the neighbouring Spanish city of La Línea reared its head in recent weeks.

Cross-border workers breathed a sigh of relief when a deal was reached on the last day of the Brexit transition period - December 31 - placing "the Rock" in the EU's borderless Schengen zone.

Alfredo Valencia, originally from La Línea, is one of these workers - he has been employed as a distributor in Gibraltar for 12 years.

He is cautiously celebrating the preliminary agreement he hopes is "going to knock down the Gibraltar Gate".

"Hopefully, it will also calm the diplomatic conflicts in Gibraltar that, unfortunately, happen a lot between Gibraltar, Spain and England," he told Euronews minutes before crossing the border by simply showing his ID to officials from both sides.

A few metres away from Alfredo, a group of half a dozen journalists are looking for cross-border workers to interview.

"We hope that the things that remain to be clarified will be clarified, such as who controls the borders," he added.

Before him, Alfredo's father worked in Gibraltar, as well as one of his brothers who has had a contract there for over three decades.

“Thousands of direct and indirect jobs are created thanks to Gibraltar,” he said. “We have and will continue to have ties of friendship with Gibraltarians because emotional ties have no borders. The bad things that happen to them affect us, and vice versa."

Residents tired of unfulfilled promises

"No government has been able to give La Línea or the Campo de Gibraltar area, which has a 35% technical unemployment, what it needs," according to Alfredo.

"Now, the government of Spain has to move forward and approve investments to improve the quality of life for the inhabitants of La Línea and the rest of the Campo de Gibraltar region," he adds, referring to promise from the authority to establish a "zone of shared prosperity" with the new Schengen area.

"We are suffering not only because of the conflict with Gibraltar but also because of the COVID-19 situation, unfortunately, it is affecting all sectors," he added.

The worker says that his town is fed up with unfulfilled promises. “A special tax zone for our area was mentioned as a new measure. None of that has been done. It could be achieved through financial aid, or tax cuts, something that can alleviate the pressure that businessmen in Campo de Gibraltar are facing,” he said.

150 years of neglect

“Our members have welcomed the agreement quite well,” says Salvador Molina, president of the Socio-Cultural Association of Spanish Workers in Gibraltar, based in La Línea. He invokes the past, remembering "big queues suffered for many years" at the border.

Molina hopes that this issue will be resolved by Gibraltar being included in the Schengen area. "It is great that La Línea and Gibraltar will continue being, as they have always been, sister cities," he said.

The union president hopes that the new situation will create commercial and industrial opportunities for La Línea, especially if it is accompanied by fiscal measures. He adds that "in Gibraltar, the space is minimal, here we have space so that projects can be implemented".

One of the most important aspects of the future agreement that is yet to be resolved, according to Molina, is the social security contributions and pensions of Spanish workers in their native land. "I have retired colleagues who started working in Gibraltar in 1986 and receive £400 or £500, which is €600 euros. A pensioner in Spain gets €1,200 minimum," he explained.

The representative defines La Línea as a city that has been "abandoned since its creation 150 years ago" by the different governments. "It is not just worth working in Gibraltar, we have to find ways for Gibraltarians to invest here and facilities for Spaniards who have businesses on the Rock."

A cautious welcome

Unions on both sides of the border have welcomed the agreement, but are awaiting more details.

For Manuel Triano, secretary in the Campo de Gibraltar wing of the Spanish union Comisiones Obreras, there would have been "a real economic drama" for the region if the New Year's Eve agreement had not been reached.

He is in favour of the Rock becoming part of the Schengen territory, arguing that the eventual disappearance of the physical border could enhance "legal security that attracts many investors."

His union is also in favour or of a special tax regime being established for Campo de Gibraltar as there are four different tax systems. "Our system is the one that presents the most disadvantages compared to Ceuta (a Spanish autonomous city on the north coast of Africa), Morocco and Gibraltar," Triano added.

On the ‘Llanito’ side - a common nickname for Gibraltarians - the Unite union has also welcomed the preliminary agreement but it has said it will study all details of the accord in full before declaring its final position. "The agreement, in principle, provides a crucial respite to fully negotiate the future relationship between Gibraltar and the EU while avoiding the catastrophe that would have been a no-deal and a hard Brexit," the union said in a statement.

Rise in employment

Despite the outcome of the Brexit referendum in June 2016, the number of cross-border workers in Gibraltar has continued to grow. It has grown from 12,361 employees (7,153 of whom are Spaniards) to 14,402 (9,248 Spaniards), according to the latest data published by the government of Gibraltar.

Now, locals are calling for even more fluidity of labour via the zone of shared prosperity to stave off any future economic storm clouds.