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For Tiny Gibraltar, There's A Lot At Stake In The 'Brexit' Vote

When Britons vote this summer on whether to exit the European Union, one of the key battlegrounds in what's being called the 'Brexit' will be Gibraltar.

The 2.6-square-mile peninsula at Spain's southern tip is geographically part of the European continent, but has been British territory for more than 300 years. That means its citizens, United Kingdom passport holders, have the right to vote on June 23.

This week, Gibraltar hosted rival rallies by advocates for and against continued EU membership.

Lawmakers from Britain's Conservative Party, which is divided over the issue, and UKIP, which is anti-EU, flew down to Gibraltar from London, to hold a 'Grassroots Out' rally, and lobby locals to vote to leave the EU.

"We've given away our trading rights. Brussels has to negotiate on our behalf, and we have a European court that can overrule our laws," says Andrew Rosindell, a Conservative who chairs parliament's Overseas Territories Group, which includes issues related to Gibraltar.

In the middle of Gibraltar's main Casemates Square, Rosindell found himself in a heated debate with a local real estate agent who favors staying in the EU.

"I think Gibraltar, as a relatively small peninsula, is much better off in the European Union," says the real estate agent, Sammy Armstrong. "It's not being scared of change. It's just that we're stronger with unity, and I think if Britain leaves the EU, it'll weaken all of us."

Gibraltar Parties Favor Staying In EU

Polls show Britons are roughly divided 50-50 over whether to leave the EU, but most in Gibraltar want to stay in. The peninsula's 23,000 eligible voters could tip the scales in a close race.

On Main Street, volunteers for the rival 'Stronger In' campaign urge passersby to register to vote June 23. Fabian Picardo, Gibraltar's chief minister and a member of the local Labour party, wants to stay in — and so do all the main political parties here.

"I think Gibraltarians feel profoundly European. Remember, we live on the European continent. I respect that there are many in the United Kingdom who take a different view, but they are not on the European continent — the UK is an island," Picardo said in an NPR interview at his office. "The only certainty about withdrawing from the EU is uncertainty. As a responsible political leader, all I can ask people to do is bet on the prosperity that we enjoy today."

Spaniards have long wanted to reclaim Gibraltar — ever since Anglo-Dutch forces captured the peninsula in 1704, during the War of Spanish Succession. Nine years later, the Treaty of Utrecht gave it to Britain "in perpetuity."It's been British ever since — complete with UK currency, traditional British fish and chips shops and red telephone booths.

Many Gibraltarians worry that Spain could close their shared border if the UK were no longer part of the EU. In 1969, the Spanish military dictator, Francisco Franco, did just that, isolating Gibraltar on and off for the next 16 years.

But nowadays, thousands of Spaniards commute across that border daily, to work in Gibraltar. They worry they could become cut off from their jobs, if the border were to close.

"It will be a disaster. Because we haven't got a place to work here in Spain," says Juan José Uceda, a member of the Association of Spanish Workers in Gibraltar.

Half of all residents on the Spanish side of the border, in the gritty town of La Línea, are out of work. Up to 10,000 others commute daily to Gibraltar, where the standard of living is much higher.

"When they bring the subject to be voted in the UK, it affects so many people here," Uceda says. "And they cannot vote on what is going to happen to them."

Spain is not allowed to close its border with Gibraltar as long as the territory is part of the EU. But if that changes in June, Spain's acting foreign minister, José Manuel García-Margallo, recently told Spanish radio that he'll launch talks over Gibraltar's sovereignty "the very next day" — something many Gibraltarians interpret as a threat of invasion.

They hear the criticism of the European Union in the Brexit debate. But they also know the EU has been a powerful mediator in their dispute with Spain.

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Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.