Renegade Spanish mayor declares war on Gibraltar with toll at the border

Town's plan to raise cash on the back of the British territory's thriving economy could lead to a fresh diplomatic row
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The Independent Online

Strange but true: the latest flashpoint of contention between Gibraltar and its closest neighbour, the Spanish town of La Linea, currently consists of a couple of concrete beams, some bollards and a barrier lying on the side of the road. It doesn't look much now, but when these scruffy arrangements are completed they could loom very large indeed.

They are, although you would not immediately know it, the advanced concrete guard of a tollbooth and gate which will enforce a €€5 levy on every vehicle using the only access road to Gibraltar. It is the project not of a Madrid government eager to resurrect the ages-old squabbles with London, but of a Spanish border town and its renegade mayor. The British offshore territory – not a colony, as Gib's government website testily emphasises – is not happy, the thousands of workers who cross the border every day are not happy, and, if the matter does not get resolved soon, the UK government won't be happy, either.

"People are fed up," says Allan Barlow, who lives in La Linea but has been working in Gibraltar for over two decades. "I love Spain, my daughter's Spanish, and there's no problem with the relationships between ordinary people, but there are these little niggly things that keep on going on, that just keep on winding us up." Referring to Alejandro Sanchez, the mayor of La Linea whose idea the toll charge is, he said: "This toll is the mayor's way of distracting attention from his own problems."

The government of Gibraltar has not been slow to react to the public's mood, with National Day last weekend a convenient platform for letting it be known they would not be deterred by the charge. Chief Minister Peter Caruana made a stirring speech to the 5,000 Gibraltarians who packed the central square, many dressed in red and white national colours. Taking aim at the La Linea mayor, he said: "Sanchez should look at National Day because this is an example of the unity that Gibraltar is capable of. And it is the very same unity that we will show him if he goes ahead with the toll."

There's little doubt that Gibraltar wants to continue its semi-autonomous existence. The last referendum, in 2002, overwhelmingly rejected any plans for "shared sovereignty" with Spain. But "Toll-Gate", as the present affair has inevitably been dubbed, is the latest in a series of low-level issues that have strained the relationship between the British territory and its neighbour. Complaints from un-named sources in Spain's Civil Guard that they have had minor run-ins with Gibraltar's police while chasing suspects appear frequently in the Spanish press; and huge traffic jams on the frontier – some caused by building work on the tollbooth – have been more evident than usual this summer.

"One shift of Spanish customs officers or police can create queues lasting hours and cause gridlock in the streets of Gibraltar," says Neil Crawford, a property development project manager who has been working in Gibraltar since 1971. "[Spain] is hardly ever a friendly neighbour in this regard."

The stark contrast between Gibraltar's currently thriving economy and La Linea, where one in six are unemployed, aggravates any issues that do arise. And there are major suspicions – heightened by Mayor Sanchez ignoring direct instructions from Madrid to stop building the tollbooth – that La Linea council's desperation for cash is such that Mr Sanchez views the toll as his only solution. "He's got a huge problem," Mr Barlow believes. "He's had local government workers staging a 24/7 sit-down protest in front of the town hall because they've been unpaid for two months. Pointing the finger at Gibraltar and saying it's the root of his problems is just a way of blaming someone further afield."

Attempts by The Independent on Sunday to talk to some local government workers failed because they said they feared reprisals from their mayor. Meanwhile, the rest of the population keep their heads down and wait for better times. While an estimated 4,000 Spanish workers have jobs on Gibraltar, others head there to buy their permitted allowance of a single carton of duty-free tobacco, which they then sell in Spain. The profits? A miserable €1 for a trip that can – thanks to the queues – take hours.

While the Spanish right continues to insist that Gibraltar should be handed back, at grassroots level, there appears to be little active interest in its return more than three centuries after it was handed over to Britain in perpetuity by the Treaty of Utrecht. "My in-laws are from Malaga," Mr Barlow says, "and they all say to me: 'Why does Spain want Gibraltar?' The average Spanish person doesn't care about it – it's just the bloody politicians."

Tension, however, is growing amid reports of a mass email campaign in Gibraltar urging the population to boycott businesses in La Linea. When Real Balompedica Linense, La Linea's football side, travelled to Gibraltar for a "friendly" match recently, the atmosphere was anything but. A major protest on both sides of the frontier against the border toll on Tuesday organised by trade unions in Spain and Gibraltar could unite the two local populations. But at the same time, nationalist sentiment, which partly fuels the rejection of the barrier, could be difficult to control.

"Anti-Spanish feelings have resurfaced in Gibraltar, while in La Linea there are now some calling for the frontier to be closed," Charlie Sisarello, a district officer with the union Unite, was reported as saying to Spanish radio. "We could have a situation where jobs would be at risk in sectors that depend directly on visitors coming to Gibraltar. Commerce, shops, hotels and restaurants could end up making staff redundant if business slows down because of this."

Certainly there is little chance of the relationship between La Linea and Gibraltar making a fast return to the situation just a few months ago, when Mr Caruana and the recently elected Mayor Sanchez held joint press conferences, shook hands and grinned for the cameras, promising a new start in cross-border relationships. Mercifully, high-level relations between Gibraltar, Spain and the UK continue to run smoothly, with the latest Trilateral Forum – three-way meetings between Mr Caruana and the two national governments – reporting unspecified "progress" in all areas from taxes to environmental issues.

Mr Sanchez's toll, though, due to start functioning as soon as 12 October, could cast a major blight on such progress. As yet, nobody – neither Madrid, nor London, nor Gibraltar – has found a way to stop it.

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