The Angry Friar is like most expat British bars, offering menu specials of the day, a selection of bitters and brews, and the Premier League games are shown on the big screen. It’s a home away from home.
There’s a tourist shop close by selling key rings, inflatable pool rings, snow globes and any other conceivable trinket that can be mass manufactured in the workshops of China and imported by the container load by wholesalers with good ties in Guangzhou all the way to Gibraltar.
There’s Gibraltar T-shirts, Gibraltar shorts, Gibraltar plastic Barbary apes, Gibraltar rocks — anything and everything with the G-word stamped on it — and most have a bit of a Union Jack flag thrown in as well, just for good measure.
This particular portion of the seaside town-cum-enclave that’s more British than Brighton and Blackpool is known as the Sandpits. And it’s here, just around the corner, at Number 6 Convent Street, that the government of Gibraltar is based. For locals, it’s just No 6 — in much the same way Britons refer to No 10 as being shorthand for the prime minister and her government.
Across Spain and Portugal, August is high holiday time, when most offices shut down, governments are ticking over, professional offices are mostly shut, and each town stages its own fiesta — just like the one in Vigo on the western coast of Galicia where a stage collapsed, injuring some 300 last Sunday evening.
But while the rest of the Iberian Peninsula is in a holiday mode, here, at No 6, the government is working overtime.
It’s that whole Brexit thing again.
Two years ago, when Brits cast their votes and cast aside more than four decades of membership of the European Union (EU), the poor Gibraltarians were also voting — but they backed staying with Brussels by a majority of 96 per cent.
Let’s just say that since then, the 34,500 or so who live on the Rock have been more than a little worried. While No 10 has given assurances to No 6 that they won’t be forgotten, there’s a growing sense of foreboding that all indeed will not remain as it is, especially as there’s every chance that the Brits will crash out of the EU on March 29 without any sort of a deal in place.
In Madrid, there are few political leaders speaking publicly on the issue, but they have got to be relishing the opportunity of being able to exert more influence than ever before over the outpost at the entrance to the Mediterranean that’s been in British control since the Treaty of Utrecht was signed back in 1713. Actually, more correctly, it was more like a series of treaties, signed between France, Spain and a host of European powers between April 1713 and September 1714.
It’s because of what’s also known as the Peace of Utrecht that Newfoundland and Nova Scotia in Canada became British possessions, the Portuguese came to control the Amazon — leading to modern-day Brazil — Sicily would eventually become Italian 150 years later, Spain ceded Gibraltar and the island of Minorca to the Brits, but graciously allow the British to supply them with slaves from Africa as part of the finer print.
But that’s enough history for now — back to the politics of the moment, and the august workings during August at No 6. The territory’s government has gone to great pains recently to say that it is prepared for all possible outcomes on Brexit and that it has made contingency plans for both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ exits, and that it had taken measures to ensure that there would be a continuity of supplies there after March 29.
No 6 is only following a reasonable course of action that was urged by the EU Commission itself last month when it warned that everyone across the EU should step up contingency planning for a no-deal Brexit.
While a lot has been written and analysed about the likely effects of Brexit on Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic across that frontier come March 29, the case of Gibraltar is different. Very much so. Gibraltar is defined as a British overseas territory and, as such, has never been in the EU in the first instance. Nor, it needs to be noted, has it ever been in the EU Customs Union. It’s this ambiguous and independent nature that allows the territory, in caverns hollowed out under the Rock, to host the servers for a range of online casinos and other financial operations.
Right now, No 6 believes that in the event of a no-deal Brexit, it would still enjoy the free movement of goods with mainland Spain. And when it comes to people and passports, No 6 says that Schengen rules would apply by default — as they do now.
Or maybe not, depending on the political powers that be in Madrid come March 29.
There’s a general election likely in Spain by then, and for nationalists and populists, they might see Brexit as a long-awaited opportunity to isolate Gibraltar and break a diplomatic standoff that’s lasted since 1713 — when Spain granted the British the right to send one ship a year to the Americas. Yep, they’re getting fidgety and beginning to fret at the Angry Friar.