As a past President of The Cross Frontier Group (CFG), John Isola gives some background details about the organisation. “The CFG was formed in October 2013 at a time when diplomatic tensions increased between Gibraltar and Spain which resulted in long border queues that caused huge disruption for workers, visitors and residents,” he explains, “with the aim of ensuring that a freely-flowing frontier existed between the two countries.”
“I give full credit to those who were instrumental in creating the CFG, an apolitical collective, bringing together business organisations and trade unions from both Gibraltar and Spain,” John says.
As well as Gibraltar Chamber of Commerce (GCC), the Gibraltar side of the CFG consists of representatives from Unite the Union, the Gibraltar Federation of Small Businesses (GFSB), the Gibraltar Teachers Association (GTA) and the Gibraltar General and Clerical Association (GGCA). The Spanish side is represented by the Federation of medium and small businesses of La Linea (APYMELL) and the two national Spanish unions – the Confederación Sindical de Comisiones Obreras (CCOO) and the Unión General de Trabajadores (UGT), with two new members having recently joined; the Cámara de Comercio del Campo de Gibraltar and the Cámara de Comercio de Cádiz.
“We came together because the frontier queues were becoming intolerable,” John states, “affecting the economies of Gibraltar and the region and as a consequence the livelihoods of citizens on both sides of the frontier.”
John cites the Economic Impact Study commissioned by the GCC, most recently updated in 2015, which shows how interlinked the two economies are and how much Gibraltar contributes to the Campo de Gibraltar and vice versa. “If, for example, we didn’t have a source of labour from the Campo de Gibraltar, our economy wouldn’t be as prosperous,” he says, “and the members of the CFG realised that cooperating with each other is so much more important to the people that live here than conflict.” He continues by saying that when the border crossing got really bad, La Linea and the Campo noticed a huge decline in business activity because Gibraltar companies buy goods and services from Spain, Gibraltarians go and shop there and also go and stay in second homes in Spain. “Similarly our economy relies on the 10,000 workers that come in every day to work in Gibraltar.” As a business owner himself, John is MD at Anglo Hispano Company Ltd; he knows only too well how crucial it is to have a free flowing border for goods and people. Since the formation of the CFG he is confident that it has played an important role in ensuring a fairly fluid border crossing achieved through its extensive lobbying.
“When we first went to Brussels as the CFG, the people that we met (including parliamentarians members of the European Commission) were absolutely astounded that there was a group working together from both sides of the border, but also that business and unions should be working together and be united in a common message.”
With the inevitable but as yet unknown ramifications of Brexit, John believes that that the CFG can play an important role in ensuring that the most is made of the opportunities that Brexit could bring. “We can actually work together to look for opportunities that will bring prosperity and make things much better for everybody,” he says, “and Gibraltar and the region have a lot going for it.” In John’s view he considers that some previously sceptical local Spanish politicians have changed their political mind set to be more supportive of this notion. “Even the new Foreign Minister in Spain is saying that whatever occurs post- Brexit, we need to make sure that the livelihoods and jobs of cross frontier workers are looked after. Clearly for this to be the case the Gibraltar economy needs to continue to thrive and prosper”
One initiative that the CFG is instrumental in pushing ahead with and which John is passionate about is the plan to set up a European Grouping of Territorial Cooperation (EGTC) as a means of promoting transnational cooperation and economic opportunities driven by all stakeholders and not just by politicians. “Amazingly, this was something that was almost stumbled upon by the CFG when it held conversations with a professor from the University of Cadiz,” John states.
“The CFG was exploring how it could be formally constituted and given a legal standing which was proving difficult given the different national laws and the transnational character of the organisation.”
Consultation about the formation of an EGTC has taken place with the Gibraltar Government, the British Government and with local government in Spain. “They have all said that it would be an ideal thing to set up, but it needs to be sanctioned by national governments.”
European law sets out very clearly and succinctly the elements that need to be fulfilled and complied with to form an EGTC and only if those things aren’t complied with, can a national government reject it, but John is confident that they have been through the check list and that they comply with all of them. “The interesting thing is that an EGTC can be formed between organisations from member countries inside the European Union and organisations from countries outside the European Union,” he says, “so, for example, there is an EGTC between Hungary and Ukraine, Hungary being the member and Ukraine not being the member.” He goes on to explain that there are EGTC’s all over Europe.
John outlines exactly what an EGTC is: “It is the first European cooperation structure with a legal personality defined by European Law, designed to facilitate and promote territorial cooperation (cross-border, transnational and inter-regional cooperation), with the aim of strengthening the economic and social cohesion of the European territory.”
“An attractive aspect of the initiative is that, once set up, it would have access to EU funds available specifically for cross-border projects and programmes.”
Highlighting examples of current EGTC’s, of which there are several, John drew attention to the Espacio Portalet EGTC between France and Spain. “This was created to jointly manage and maintain the mountain passage of Portalet (road A136 in Spain and road D934 in France),” he clarifies. “The highway that runs between France and Spain in the Pyrenees often gets clogged up with snow and Spanish snow ploughs would clear the snow on different days of the week to the French snow ploughs, so the road was never passable.” In this particular case an EGTC was formed to ensure that road was cleared on both sides of the border all the time.
An EGTC is like a corporate organisation, with a Chief Executive, employees and equipment as well as office premises. John and George Dyke are currently the members on the CFG representing the GCC.
“We need to find a specific project to run with to form an EGTC,” he says. “ and offices would be set up on both sides of the border.”
“A possible project for an EGTC with European funding that has been suggested by the Mancomunidad de Municipios is a light passenger railway from Algeciras along the shores of the Bay to La Linea that would extend into Gibraltar,” John states, “and there is talk of creating a free zone in La Linea close to the Gibraltar border that could be managed by the EGTC.”
An EGTC needs to be constituted by two legal entities and then once it is constituted other organisations can join depending on the role that each can play. John confirms that at the moment the Gibraltar Chamber of Commerce and the Cámara de Comercio del Campo de Gibraltar in Algeciras have been identified as the possible organisations that would form the EGTC. “We have to prepare the statutes and then make an application to the EU, so although I am not exactly sure what the time frame is, we are very keen to get the ball rolling,” John explains.
Overall, John states that the future for business in Gibraltar is looking more positive today than it did a year ago. “We were all in shock following the result of the Referendum, and I am certainly encouraged by how well we all get on in the CFG and if that continues, I know that we have a very strong voice and will be vociferous if any negative changes are made to the cross border environment,” he says.
“There have been many organisations of a similar nature to the CFG that have been and gone and the fact that we are still here, four years after it was first created, is a testament to our spirit, to the organisations that form it and to the individuals that represent those organisations in the CFG.”