Brexit is threatening to stir up old enmities between the UK and Spain over Gibraltar following the publication of draft guidelines for the EU’s Brexit negotiations which show that the bloc will support Spain’s claim to the territory.
“After the UK leaves the Union, no agreement between the EU and the United Kingdom may apply to the territory of Gibraltar without the agreement between the Kingdom of Spain and the United Kingdom”, the document says. This in effect grants Spain a veto over any future trade deal between the UK and the EU, a veto which it may choose to yield unless concessions are made on the status of the territory. This could involve a demand that Gibraltar be excluded from any agreement, putting the UK in the position of having to choose between its support for the colony or securing a trade deal for the rest of the UK only.
Gibraltar, on the southern tip of Spain, has been under British control since it was captured by an Anglo-Dutch fleet in 1713, becoming a colony in 1830. Despite referendums in 1967 and 2002 that returned overwhelming votes in favour of remaining part of the UK, the Spanish state has never relinquished its claim to the territory. According to the Spanish newspaper El Pais, the statement supporting Spain’s position on Gibraltar was the result of intense lobbying in Brussels by the Spanish government. Madrid was further encouraged this week when Theresa May made no explicit mention of Gibraltar in the letter that was handed to European Commission President Donald Tusk invoking Article 50. In the last few weeks the leaders of three of Spain’s major parties, the centre-right Partido Popular, the centre-left Socialists and the reformist Ciudadanos party have had meetings with the Spanish foreign ministry to devise a joint strategy regarding Gibraltar.
Responding to the EU’s position, Gibraltar’s chief minister Fabian Picardo said, “This unnecessary, unjustified and unacceptable discriminatory proposed singling out of Gibraltar and its people was the predictable machination of Spain that the people of Gibraltar foresaw and one of the reasons why we voted so massively to remain in the EU.”
Ninety-six percent of Gibraltarians voted in favour of staying in the EU.
UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson wrote on his Facebook page that in a phone conversation with Picardo he told him “that the UK remains implacable and rock-like in our support for Gibraltar. As the prime minister herself said earlier this week, we are clear that Gibraltar is covered by our exit negotiations and we have committed to involving Gibraltar fully in the work that we are doing.”
Liberal Democrats leader Tim Farron claimed that by not making any mention of Gibraltar in Ms May’s article 50 letter the prime minister had made a “major strategic error” adding that “Gibraltar should not be hung out to dry by this government for the sake of a hard Brexit.”