A Modern Day Falklands?: Brexit and the Anglo-Spanish Debate over Gibraltar’s Sovereignty

In the wake of Brexit, Anglo-Spanish relations have grown increasingly tense over the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar. After British Prime Minister Theresa May triggered Article 50 on March 29, officially setting the process of leaving the EU into motion, one stumbling block for the United Kingdom came to light: the EU’s draft document on Brexit strategy had no mention of agreement on the Union’s future relationship with the UK applying to Gibraltar as well without Spain’s consent. As a result, Spain had a potential veto. In June’s referendum, Gibraltar voted by 96% to stay in the European Union and due to reports of Spain lobbying for the condition of having a veto in the result of a “Yes” vote to the UK leaving the EU, many Gibraltarians accuse Spain of using Brexit to pursue territorial desires.

The guidelines stated that “After the United Kingdom 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.”

To many outside of Europe, Gibraltar, situated at the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula, the importance of this limestone outcrop is still difficult to discern. Gibraltar consists of 2.3 square miles dominated by the 1,300 foot high limestone Rock of Gibraltar and a population of approximately 32,000. Positioned at the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea, Gibraltar has important access to commercial shipping and oil transportation and is seen as an important base for Great Britain’s Royal Navy. Although it was seized by an Anglo-Dutch force in 1704 and Great Britain  and subsequently came to rule Gibraltar in 1713 under Article X of the Treaty of Utrecht, Spain still claims its sovereignty. This debate between rule and sovereignty results in tensions only further strained by the cultural and biological demographics of the natives. In addition to recent arrival of Moroccan migrant workers, most Gibraltarians and are of mixed Genoese, British, Spanish, Jewish, Maltese and Portuguese descent, resulting in a large population bilingual in both English and Spanish.

Gibraltar in European Union – Wikimedia Commons

The sovereignty of Gibraltar is still a major point of contention in Anglo-Spanish relations. Due to the conditions under the Treaty of Utrecht, Gibraltarians are British citizens, electing their own representatives to their respective House of Assembly with a governor appointed by Britain’s monarch. Despite this entitlement to self-governing, Gibraltar does not have control over its respective defense and foreign policy. Spain’s insistence on achieving a full sovereignty over Gibraltar resulted in different political actions. According to Gibraltar’s 1969 constitution, if opposed by Gibraltarians, there can be no transfer of Gibraltar’s sovereignty to Spain. A 2002 referendum resulted in Gibraltarians rejecting joint sovereignty, a result of 99% to 1% against the idea of the UK sharing sovereignty with Spain. Despite EU pressure with the launch of the 1984 Brussels Process on Spain and Britain to resolve the debate over Gibraltar’s status, there were still multiple problems. For nearly thirty years, passenger flights between Spain and Gibraltar were blocked, resuming only in 2006. Today, Gibraltarians still face renewed border checks and other delays.

Spain’s contention for Gibraltar also lies in its economy. Viewed as a corporate tax haven, companies, wealthy individuals, and even politicans avoid paying millions of dollars in taxes. Despite being a part of the EU, Gibraltar lies outside the VAT zone and the customs union, which is a group of states agreeing to charge the same import duties and also allowing free trade amongst themselves. Therefore, Gibraltar is allowed to set its own tariffs on goods imported from outside the EU, resulting in profits that make up a large portion of its economy.

Gibraltarians’ biggest fear of Brexit repercussions concerns the effect on the economy. Many businesses are dependent on the European Union’s allowance for free movement of people and goods across open borders.

“The biggest fear we have is a potential closure of the border. We would have to reevaluate our Spanish workforce and look at possibly getting rid of the majority of our Spanish workers and trying to train up locals, which would be very disruptive and take up a huge amount of time to do,” George Bassadone, an employer of Spanish worker in Gibraltar, said.

In wake of the problem coming to light, the British government has received criticism for failing to mention Gibraltar in the letter triggering Article 50. British ministers insist that the territory is referred to in a different document, stressing the desire and commitment to protecting Gibraltar’s interest.  

“The Sovereignty of Gibraltar is unchanged and is not going to change,” UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson said.

The British have been accused of “saber-rattling” in response to Spain’s claim to a veto. The ruling Conservative Party warned that the UK would be willing to go to extreme measures to retain control over Gibraltar. The warning draws comparisons to the two month long Falklands War in 1982 between Argentina and the United Kingdom over the British overseas territories in the south Atlantic. After Argentina invaded and occupied the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, the British government under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher dispatched a naval task force to engage the Argentinian Navy and Air Force before making an amphibious assault on the islands. The conflict over the territories’ sovereignty ended with the Argentine surrender in June 1982 and returned the islands to British control. A total of 649 Argentine military personnel, 255 British military personnel, and three Falkland Islanders died during the conflict.

“35 years ago this week another woman Prime Minister [Margaret Thatcher] sent a task force half way across the World to defend the freedom of another small group of British people against another Spanish-speaking country,” former leader of the Conservative Party Lord Michael Howard said. “I am absolutely certain our current Prime Minister [Theresa May] will show the same resolve.”

Not condemning Howard’s comments, Downing Street said it would not be sending a task force to Gibraltar.  A spokesman stated that “All that Lord Howard was trying to establish is the resolve that we will have to protect the rights of Gibraltar and its sovereignty.”

Prime Minister Theresa May compared Britain’s approach as “jaw jaw, not war war”, implementing a phrase used by Winston Churchill to suggest ruling out war with Spain.

“What we are doing, with all EU countries in the EU is sitting down and talking to them,” May said. “We’re going to be talking to them about getting the best possible deal for the UK and for those countries – Spain included.”

After Howard’s comments about the Falklands War and warning of Britain taking the necessary precautions, that the Spanish government was “surprised by the tone of comments coming out of Britain”.

“It seems someone is losing their cool,” Minister of Foreign Affairs Alfonso Dastis stated at a conference in MadridTensions increased on April 4, a day after Dastis’ claim, when the Royal Navy chased a Spanish gunship out from British waters off Gibraltar’s coast, viewed as an illegal incursion.

A Foreign Office spokesman said: “The Royal Navy challenges all unlawful maritime incursions into British Gibraltar Territorial Waters – and did so again on this occasion,” a Foreign Office spokesman said.

A spokesman from Spain’s foreign ministry denied the British claim, stating the Spanish ship was in Spain’s own waters. The incident is the seventh of the kind to occur already this year.

On the continent, many EU and NATO members express concern and disagreement with the increased tensions between Spain and the United Kingdom. Many disagree with Spain’s territorial claims and view the dispute as unnecessarily aggressive.

“The warmongering rhetoric over Gibraltar is worrisome, though not so much for the actual prospect of a shooting war over those rocks, but rather what those comments reveal about the mind-set of those who are ready to elevate the narcissism of small differences to a causa belli,” Cornelius Adebahr, a European affairs experts with the German Council on Foreign Relations, said. “All countries concerned are NATO allies, so the actual idea of going to war is insane.”

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