Britain’s prolonged attempt to exit the European Union has hit another obstacle that could have and should have been anticipated but which apparently was not anticipated by the current UK government. Like the disputed territory of Northern Ireland, the disputed territory of Gibraltar became something of a muted point of contention in recent years. This was the case due to the fact that in both Northern Ireland and Gibraltar, multiple claimants to the respective territories were members of the European Union (EU), an organisation that fostered freedom of trade, freedom of movement and a single market on both sides of the proverbial divide.
Throughout the Brexit process, Britain has engaged in tense negotiations with Brussels and the remaining members of the EU regarding the status of Northern Ireland once Britain leaves the European Union. Yet the issue of Gibraltar, a geographically contiguous part of Spain ruled by Britain, has scarcely been mentioned until now. Now though, the Spanish government has vowed to use its veto power as an EU member in good standing to quash any Brexit deal that does not account for Spain’s claims to territorial rights over a small piece of land that shares a contiguous border with the rest of mainland Spain.
While Britain’s domestic political parties are themselves on the verge of total implosion over the present terms of the UK Prime Minister’s Brexit agreement, the latent Spanish position that is now being voiced has come as a surprise to many in Britain even though the position of Gibraltar is if anything even more legally precarious than that of Northern Ireland which for nearly two decades has enjoyed a touch-and-go power sharing agreement between competing sectarian factions in the disputed territory.
For Spain, the issue is all the more serious as for over a year, Madrid has been politically and physically battling against the Catalan independence movement. While Catalonia has a long history of either independence or autonomy in the Iberian Peninsula, Madrid moved to crush demonstrations in the autumn of 2017 during which time voters in Catalonia opted to form an independent Republic whose hours long existence came to an abrupt end after Spain intervened and took back control of the government in Barcelona.
It is instructive to remember that all of this happened even as Catalonia’s independence movement remained highly pro-EU. This means that the very principle of part of what Madrid considers Spain remaining in the EU as an independent state was not acceptable. One can therefore imagine just how unacceptable Madrid views what it considers an integral part of Spain, in this case Gibraltar, outside of the EU and ruled by a foreign power.
With this in mind, it becomes increasingly clear that far from “bluffing”, Spain means what it says about Gibraltar not least because a Gibraltar independent of Spain and outside of the EU would set a precedent favourable to the existence of a far more pro-EU and consequently less de-facto anti-Spain Republic of Catalonia. This is a precedent that Madrid simply will not allow.
In 2016, when British voters took part in the Brexit referendum, Gibraltar was among the first places to vote and the vote was overwhelmingly in favour of sustained EU membership among British nationals in Gibraltar. The British nationals in Gibraltar clearly knew then what the British government pretends not to know over two years later – namely that if Britain were to exit from the European Union without a Norway style agreement at the very minimum, Madrid would raise the issue of Gibraltar and do so for reasons far more to do with increasingly tense internal Iberian matters than anything else.
But just as the Irish question appeared to be an afterthought in the minds of Brexit’s unwilling architects (Theresa May voted to remain in the European Union), Gibraltar is an equally important after-after thought. But for Spanish officials who thus far have held their tongue, the hour to voice their long standing opinion has come and Britain has been self-evidently caught off guard.
While it is unlikely that Spain and Britain will fight a war over Gibraltar in the way that Britain and Argentina fought a war over the disputed Malvnias/Falklands territory in 1982, Spain could simply move its authorities into Gibraltar in the way that it did with Catalonia last year and re-assert control at a political level and even a policing level. Short of a war between fellow NATO members, there is little that Britain could do to stop such a move other than to engage in intense negotiations with Madrid immediately. As the Catalan example shows, Spain was able to re-assert political and policing control without much of a fight.
While the status of Gibraltar may be a remote concept to a majority of ordinary people in both Britain and Spain, when it comes to policy making, the issue is now a central one. Those who think Spain does not mean what it says about Gibraltar should simply ask Catalan activists how Spain reacts to unilateral moves against what it considers territory that is integral to its existence as a sovereign Kingdom.