– Juan Franco hopes to attract Gibraltarian investment for his city’s projects
Spain’s policy of “besieging” Gibraltar has “achieved nothing” but to alienate Gibraltarians and harden their resolve to remain British, Juan Franco, the mayor of La Linea, said this week, adding that the Rock “will never be Spanish” if Spain continues to pursue that strategy.
Speaking to the Chronicle on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the border closure, Mr Franco said he enjoyed good relations with the Gibraltar Government and was committed to building strong cross-border links.
But the mayor, who recently secured a second term following a landslide victory in which his independent party La Linea 100×100 won 21 seats in a 25-seat council, acknowledged that Spanish diplomacy’s age-old approach to Gibraltar was not conducive to fostering trust between communities.
Spain has not changed tack on Gibraltar in over 300 years, despite having had numerous types of government, from dictatorships to parliamentary democracies in various different forms and of political persuasions.
“We’ve had it all, and all the governments that Spain has ever had have wanted to recover the sovereignty of the Rock,” he said.
“And all of them, to a greater or lesser extent, have besieged Gibraltar as a matter of policy.”
“But from the Great Siege to the closure of the border, what has the Government of Spain achieved? Nothing.”
“If you’ve been trying the same solution to a problem for over 300 years and the result is nothing, why don’t you change those solutions?”
And he added: “If the [Spanish] Ministry for Foreign Affairs continues to follow the same policy that it has been following for the past 300 years, [Gibraltar] will never be Spanish.”
Mr Franco was keen to stress, repeatedly, that his competencies as mayor do not include relations with Gibraltar, which for Spain is a foreign policy issue and the sole remit of the Spanish central government.
But as the mayor of the closest Spanish city to the Rock, he has clear views on what he believes the relationship should be like and is not afraid to express them, particularly when it comes to La Linea links to the Rock.
“We’ve always argued that we have to have an economy that complements Gibraltar, not one that depends on Gibraltar,” he said.
“We have to make the most of the fact that we have Gibraltar next door, and we have to offer things that Gibraltar doesn’t have.”
There is, however, an elephant in the room, one that is beyond his remit, and that is the need to ensure border fluidity as a key component of good cross-border relations.
The uncertainty of Brexit has put a spotlight on the border and, for now at least, the signals from Madrid are that there is no intention to hinder fluidity.
But in common with his Gibraltarian neighbours, Mr Franco knows that can change overnight.
“There is an issue that I don’t control, no matter how much of a fuss I kick up, and that is the border,” he said.
“Who’s going to say with any certainty that we’re not going to get another Margallo in the future? I don’t think we will, but…”
Mr Franco, who has yet to be sworn in after the last municipal election is currently filling the post in a caretaker capacity, said that as soon as the formalities are complete and he is formally back in his office, his top priority is to resume pressure on the Spanish Government for firm commitments as to the future.
When Mr Franco first took office in 2015, he inherited a council that was in dire straits and was even unable to pay its monthly salary bill.
After a period of austerity that included salary cuts and restraints on spending, Mr Franco – who was previously head of the council’s tax department and was well versed with its finances – said the city is back on track.
La Linea has set out a number of significant infrastructure investments, including important port and marina projects; reopening the central road access to the city while making some central areas pedestrian-only; regenerating key central landmarks like the market and the Teatro de la Velada; refurbishing the 19th century bullring – mentioned in James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ – for musical and cultural events; refurbishing the city’s historical defensive structures with an eye on tourism.
In the coming weeks, the council also hopes to come to Gibraltar to meet with the business community and explain its medium and long-term plans.
“We’re looking for investors,” Mr Franco said.
“We want to explain what our plans are to the people of Gibraltar, how we would like to see Gibraltar as a key partner in the development of our city.”
“I want Gibraltar to hear about our plans for La Linea directly from us.”
“If you don’t understand something, you might look at it with a certain degree of reticence. But if it’s explained to you, you might see it as an opportunity.”
Underpinning the mayor’s plans for La Linea is a sense that their city has long been ignored and abandoned by central governments in Madrid.
As well as pushing for projects that will create employment and opportunities for La Linea’s citizens, he is campaigning for the city to be granted an autonomous status, much the same as Ceuta and Melilla on the other side of the strait.
He believes that with special arrangements in place, La Linea could act as a back-office for companies in Gibraltar in need of physical space. After Brexit, with the right framework in place, La Linea could even act as a gateway for Gibraltar-based companies into Europe.
Many have described the idea as harebrained, but if nothing else it has served to put La Linea and its challenges firmly in the media spotlight.
Mr Franco says his party defends La Linea’s unique interests in a way that other mainstream Spanish political parties will not.
“Who’s going to fight for the 11,000 workers I have in La Linea who work in Gibraltar? No other party,” he said.
But it is also about the small things. Fixing roads and parks, keeping streets clean, ensuring salaries are paid on time, investing wherever possible on new infrastructure and facilities.
When La Linea 100×100 won its first term in office, people voted for the party “because they were desperate,” he said.
“Many people tell me they voted for La Linea 100×100 because we gave them hope once again.”