GIBRALTAR — When the apes disappear from the Rock of Gibraltar, the British will go, too.
So says a bit of local lore taken seriously enough that Winston Churchill ordered emergency primate reinforcements at the height of World War II, and residents of this fish-and-chips enclave in the land of flamenco pamper their simian neighbors with meticulous care and feeding.
Yet even as the colony of apes — tailless monkeys, really — thrives in its home at the top of the Rock, the 30,000 Britons who live at the foot of the soaring limestone monolith are feeling nervous.
They may not be going anywhere. But thanks to Brexit, Gibraltar is about to leave the European Union — giving Spain new impetus in its centuries-long quest to retake control of this strategically vital and economically prosperous territory, Britain’s sole continental outpost.
To the residents — who take their Britishness seriously — Spain’s suggestions that Gibraltar could be cut off from the rest of Europe unless it accepts at least partial Spanish sovereignty represent a serious threat.
Gibraltar, they say, embodies the European ideal of shared prosperity through cross-border trade and movement. But as European bonds fray, those living here worry that the coupling of Brexit with Spanish threats could return Gibraltar to a painful past.
“Instead of feeding the goose that lays the golden egg, Spain is trying to kill it,” said Ernest “Tito” Vallejo Smith, a retired military man, local historian and tour guide. “We don’t know what’s going to happen. We’re stuck in limbo.”
In that respect, Gibraltar has company. Since the stunning vote by Britain in June to exit the E.U., the country has been locked in suspended animation, awaiting the outcome of negotiations that will reshape virtually every aspect of its relationship with its European neighbors.
As Gibraltar’s predicament shows, untangling Britain from the E.U. will not be easy. With the negotiations expected to begin this spring, British Prime Minister Theresa May has vowed that she will deliver results to a population demanding liberation from the Brussels bureaucracy and, in particular, greater freedom to limit migration into Britain.
But she also will have to defend British financial interests, which are heavily intertwined with the E.U. And she will need to look out for each of the United Kingdom’s component parts, some of which — Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar — voted against Brexit.
Meanwhile, European negotiators will seek to use every bit of leverage to drive a hard bargain with their soon-to-be-former E.U. ally, and to dissuade other wavering members from a rush to the exits.
The negotiations, due to last two years, could leave tiny Gibraltar especially vulnerable. Its residents know this well, and it helps to explain why 96 percent of Gibraltarians who voted in the June referendum opted for “remain.”
Unlike its rainy island motherland some 1,000 miles to the north, sun-splashed Gibraltar relies on daily movement and trade across a European border to supply nearly half of its workforce and the vast majority of its resources. And the country that controls that border is Spain — which gave Gibraltar away to Britain in a peace treaty more than 300 years ago, and has wanted it back ever since.
With the Brexit vote, Spanish officials seemed to think their moment had finally come. Within hours of the result, then-Foreign Minister José García-Margallo declared that the time to plant “the Spanish flag on the Rock” was close at hand.
Last fall, Spain took its case to the United Nations, arguing that Britain’s hold on Gibraltar represented an outdated relic of colonialism.
Spain’s position has slightly softened in recent weeks, with the country’s new foreign minister acknowledging that Spain has little hope of regaining control as long as the British government and Gibraltar authorities refuse to budge. But he also suggested that there will be consequences to Gibraltarians for a spurned Spanish offer of co-sovereignty.
“They have a right to get left out of the E.U., if that’s what they want,” Alfonso Dasits told the Spanish newspaper El País. “But if Gibraltar wants a relationship with the E.U., it will have to go through us.”
To longtime residents, the implication is so clear it doesn’t even need to be stated. With Britain and Gibraltar out of the E.U., Spain could decide to sharply limit movement at the border, choking off the territory’s thriving economy, which is built on financial services, online gambling and e-commerce.
Most people here do not think Spanish authorities actually would go that far. But as residents know from bitter experience, it has been done before.
“Never underestimate the lengths that the Spanish government will go to to damage Gibraltar,” said Edward Macquisten, chief executive of the Gibraltar Chamber of Commerce. “That’s the lesson of our history.”
Indeed, “steady as the Rock of Gibraltar” may be a familiar phrase worldwide, but through millennia of war, siege and disputed control, this place has rarely been placid.
Its location — on a peninsula jutting into the Mediterranean, with clear views of the African and European coasts plus the nine-mile-wide strait that bears Gibraltar’s name — has made it an incomparable military prize. The Rock itself is a natural fortress, its sheer walls deterring all but the most dogged invaders.
But the same factors that made Gibraltar so coveted have also made it the object of damaging battles, as the tunnels, cannon batteries and pockmarked stone walls that litter the verdant Rock attest.
With only one road in and out, Gibraltar is also highly vulnerable to siege. In 1969, the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco took advantage of that weakness, abruptly closing the border. The territory was cut off from supplies and deprived of workers. Families divided by the separation were forced to shout news of births and deaths across a fence, their words dying in the sea wind on particularly blustery days.
The border was not fully reopened for 16 years, creating a bitter and lasting memory.
“We don’t want to go back to a situation of history revisiting itself,” said Jennifer Ballantine, director of the Gibraltar Garrison Library. “It was painful enough the first time.”
Chief Minister of Gibraltar Fabian Picardo insists that that is not going to happen — and that neither is any form of Spanish sovereignty, an idea Gibraltarians emphatically rejected in a 2002 referendum.
“The people of France are French, the people of Germany are German and the people of Gibraltar are British,” Picardo said in an interview in his handsome offices off Gibraltar’s Main Street, which is lined with fruit-laden orange trees and red postal boxes bearing the seal of Queen Elizabeth II.
Britain’s vote for Brexit, Picardo said, was a moment of “deep sorrow” in Gibraltar — because residents are committed Europeans and because they knew the vote to leave would give Spain leverage.
But now that Britain has made its choice, he said, it is vital for the territory to retain access to the single European market and to preserve fluid movement for the 12,000 workers who cross the border daily. He said Britain’s government will fight for both.
“I have absolutely no doubt that London understands how important those issues are for Gibraltar and for the United Kingdom,” he said.
British officials have, for their part, insisted that they will not submit to Spanish demands. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson made that clear in typically colorful fashion, declaring that Britain would maintain “an implacable, marmoreal and rock-like resistance” to any effort to weaken its control over Gibraltar.
But even so, Gibraltar’s plucky residents are girding themselves for possible hard times. The monkeys — Europe’s only free-range colony — are here to stay, and so are the British. But that doesn’t mean life won’t become rough.
“The Gibraltarian is a born survivor. We’ve been through sieges, through wars, through all kinds of bad times,” said Vallejo Smith, the tour guide, historian and lifelong resident who at 68 speaks from personal experience. “But somehow, we always manage to come out afloat.”
Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.