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Family In Gibraltar Braces For June's 'Brexit' Referendum


This morning we're talking about Brexit, a possible British exit from the European Union. Britons will vote 10 weeks from today on whether to stay in the EU or pull out and go it alone. It's a huge issue for the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe and perhaps an even bigger deal in a tiny British territory with an outsized name at the entrance to the Mediterranean, which is where our reporter Lauren Frayer is. Good Morning.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Good Morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Tell us exactly where you are.

FRAYER: I'm looking up at the Rock of Gibraltar. And yes, it really is a rock, a huge limestone peninsula that juts out into the Mediterranean from southern Spain. It's about a 2-and-a-half-square-mile territory, so very small. And it's sort of a relic of the British Empire. Spain was forced to cede it to Britain after a battle more than 300 years ago, and it's been British ever since. It's a pretty strategic marker at the entrance to the Mediterranean. Its citizens speak English, have U.K. passports and thus will be able to vote June 23, in the Brexit referendum. The thing is, Gibraltar's different from the British Isles because it's physically part of the European continent. And the question is, what would happen if it's no longer politically part of it, part of the European Union?

MONTAGNE: All right, well, what would happen?

FRAYER: Well, everyone I've been talking to here over the past few days - so politicians, shopkeepers, Spaniards who commute here - say it's really uncharted territory. Those old enough to remember the 1970s and '80s here, so before the EU, remember how you couldn't pass as easily back and forth over the border with Spain. Spain still claims Gibraltar as its own. Spaniards really do feel that this territory belongs to their country. And so back then, before the EU prevented it, Spain would periodically close its border, essentially cutting off this tiny territory from the rest of the continent. At times, the only way to travel out of Gibraltar was by sea or air. But now we're really used to the free movement of people back and forth over borders in Europe. And in fact, thousands of people commute back and forth daily over the Gibraltar-Spain border. Here's the story of one family I met here and about how Brexit could be a big deal in their daily lives.


FRAYER: Damon Bossino lives up a steep cobblestone street on the side of the Rock of Gibraltar.

DAMON BOSSINO: It's very hilly, as you can tell from my breathing. That's where my parents live, public post office.

FRAYER: He was born here, a native Gibraltarian and U.K. citizen. But like most of the territory's 30,000 residents, he speaks Spanish and travels often across the border to Spain, so often, in fact, that he fell in love with a Spaniard.

FRAYER: Hello.

ROSA BOSSINO: Hi, nice to meet you.

FRAYER: Nice to meet you.

R. BOSSINO: Yeah, I'm Rosa Bossino, married to Damon. I live here for 10 years now.

FRAYER: The Bossinos take their three kids, including 8-year-old Lucia, across the border to see Rosa's parents every weekend.

Where do your grandparents live?

LUCIA: In Spain. We talk in Spanish together.

FRAYER: You go visit them on Saturdays or Sundays?

LUCIA: Yeah, and sometimes when we don't have school.

FRAYER: But they worry that if Britain leaves the EU, Spain could again press its claim to Gibraltar and possibly close the border.

D. BOSSINO: From a human perspective, the thing which would affect us most directly is any possibility of the frontier closing. If that happened, then it would divide two communities in a very significant way.

FRAYER: It's not just the importance of seeing relatives. The Bossino's 9-year-old, John, is autistic and requires special care across the border.

R. BOSSINO: Sometimes he needs special doctors. Maybe if I go in a plane to U.K., we have it. But from - it's very stressful for John, that is autistic, to go in a plane. For me, it's easier to go to the doctors in Spain. I'm Spanish, and my father's a doctor. I know perfectly the language and everything, and for me it's easier.

FRAYER: Aside from the fear of possible border closures, which some Spanish leaders have suggested but not promised, the Bossinos say they'll vote in June to stay in the EU because of how they feel.

D. BOSSINO: We don't have that sort of psychological issue that perhaps many Brits have in the U.K. We don't have the English Channel. We are part of mainland Europe.

FRAYER: So Renee, there you have a family who really feel European. Rosa, in fact, learned English in an EU-funded college exchange program. Their kids are dual citizens crossing borders, as you heard, every weekend to see their grandparents. And they are the EU generation. They take for granted the free movement of goods, services, people, capital. So Damon and Rosa - she's a dual citizen - they plan to vote to stay in the EU. And polls show most Gibraltarians will do the same. But the rest of Britain is very divided over this.

MONTAGNE: Well, you've been crossing that border a few times in your reporting this week. Tell us what that - the trip is like.

FRAYER: I have. And crossing borders every day for people here has become pretty routine, like for Americans who might live on the Mexican or Canadian borders. People like the Bossino family you just heard from, they carry their passports every single day. To get into Gibraltar from Spain, you've got to go through ID checks by the Spanish as you leave and then by the British as you enter. And then you've got to walk across Gibraltar's airport runway. The border area's the only place on the rock flat enough to land planes. And so the road into Gibraltar literally crosses the runway. There's a stoplight that halts traffic, both cars and pedestrians, when planes take off and land. So you stand there, and you have this monstrous roar of planes taking off and landing as you wait to get in.

MONTAGNE: Well, final question here, how big of a deal is the vote in Gibraltar? Can they make a difference there?

FRAYER: Well, Gibraltar has 23,000 eligible voters. So if this is a very tight race, they could, in theory, tip the scales. There have been rival rallies here this week. MPs for the Brexit campaign have flown down from London to try to convince Gibraltarians to vote their way. People here will be watching how Brits farther north cast their ballots because it will affect their lives here.

MONTAGNE: Well, thank you very much.

FRAYER: Thanks, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Reporter Lauren Frayer is speaking to us from the Rock of Gibraltar. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.