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Europe

A rock in a hard place: UK-Spain tensions flare over Gibraltar as Brexit talks begin

© José Luis Roca, AFP file picture | In 2002, the residents of Gibraltar rejected the idea of Britain sharing sovereignty over the territory with Spain

Text by Louise NORDSTROM

Latest update : 2017-04-04

The future of Gibraltar has become the first dispute of the Brexit talks, with tensions flaring between the EU, Britain and Spain over whether the future of the British enclave lies with London or Madrid. Or both.

Just days after British Prime Minister Theresa May filed her Article 50 letter – formally kickstarting Britain’s divorce from the EU – “The Rock” has become the first dispute to arise in what are expected to be both lengthy and difficult exit talks.

While May has been criticised for failing to mention Gibraltar in the formal exit letter, the EU on Friday sent out a draft of its negotiation guidelines to its member states, appearing to offer Spain a right of veto over the enclave’s future trade relations with the bloc.

The draft stipulated 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 agreement between the Kingdom of Spain and the United Kingdom.”

The tiny Mediterranean peninsula has been governed by Britain since 1713 but is claimed by Spain, causing a number of disputes between the two countries over the centuries.

Over the weekend, tensions not only rose, but began to flare up again, as British and Spanish officials traded barbs over the clause included in the EU draft, and what exactly it would mean.

‘Cuckolded husband’

On Sunday, Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis told Spain’s El Pais newspaper that Spain’s position on the matter was clear: “When the UK leaves the EU, the member nation of the EU is Spain, and in the case of Gibraltar the EU is therefore obligated to side with Spain."

Britain’s May, meanwhile, called Gibraltar’s Chief Minister Fabian Picardo to reassure him that Britain remains “steadfastly committed” to its overseas territory and would never enter into agreements that would bring it under Spanish rule against the “freely and democratically expressed wishes” of its 32,000 inhabitants. She also vowed to include the local administration in the Brexit process.

Former Conservative leader Michael Howard even suggested in an interview Sunday that May would be prepared to go to war to defend the strategic British territory, prompting Spain to express surprise at the “tone of comments coming out of Britain” and calling for calm.

An unnamed May spokesman later attempted to water Howard’s comments down, saying he had simply tried to establish “the resolve that we will have to protect the rights of Gibraltar and its sovereignty”.

On Monday, Gibraltar’s Picardo told Reuters that by including Gibraltar in the draft negotiation guidelines, EU Council President Donald Tusk was “behaving like a cuckolded husband who is taking it out on the children”.

“We are not going to be a chip and we are not going to be a victim of Brexit as we are not the culprits of Brexit: We voted to stay in the European Union so taking it out on us is to allow Spain to behave in the manner of the bully,” he said.

Instead, Picardo suggested the EU remove all references to Gibraltar in the Brexit guidelines.

“Removal of the reference to Gibraltar would be a sign of good faith and good will,” he said.

Gibraltar is considered to be one of the most prosperous regions in Europe thanks to a strong economy based on financial services, tourism and Internet gambling. In a 2002 referendum, its residents voted against the idea of Britain sharing sovereignty with Spain by 99 percent. In the Brexit vote last June, however, 96 percent of them voted to remain in the EU.

Independence vote unlikely

Gibraltar is considered to be one of the most prosperous regions in Europe thanks to a strong economy based on financial services, tourism and Internet gambling. In a 2002 referendum, its residents voted against the idea of Britain sharing sovereignty with Spain by 99 percent. In the Brexit vote last June, however, 96 percent of them voted to remain in the EU.

Chris Grocott, a lecturer in economic history at the University of Leicester and a Gibraltar expert, told FRANCE 24 that the main reason for why the enclave is getting a different EU exit deal than Britain is because of the historical context in which it joined the EU in the 1970s in the first place.

“It joined at the same time as the UK, but under different circumstances, which means there will be special circumstances now that the UK leaves,” he said, noting that the peninsula was, among other things, exempted from the EU treaty on the free movement of goods. Gibraltar was also part of the negotiations when Spain joined the bloc in the 1980s, he said.

“It was bilateral talks between the UK, Spain and Gibraltar and one of the conditions for Spain joining the EU was that it would remove its frontiers with Gibraltar and which were installed during the Franco era.”

Grocott said that although Gibraltarians have already demonstrated a strong pro-EU sentiment, their unwillingness to claim independence from Britain appears to be even stronger.

“I can’t at all imagine an independence- or shared sovereignty referendum taking place. At least not in the short term. If you had such a vote now, I think you’d get the same result as you had in 2002. There’s just no appetite for it,” he said, explaining that the territory’s attachment and constitutional relationship with Britain dates back to the 16th century when Spain ceded control of the peninsula.

“There’s so much history and culture. Gibraltar as we know it was built up – legally and culturally – under British rule. And Britain has stood up and defended Gibraltar quite a few times, with the frontiers with Spain being just one example,” he said.

“The perfectly realistic solution to what’s going on right now would be for everyone to just carry on with things just as they are. Because it is working on a local level.”

Date created : 2017-04-03

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