Could Britain be forced to surrender the long-disputed territory of Gibraltar as part of Brexit negotiations?
Prime Minister Theresa May has been accused of a Brexit blunder after she failed to mention Gibraltar in her Article 50 letter.
Now the EU is set to hand the Spanish government – which has long held a claim over the territory – a veto over decisions on the Rock’s future.
Gibraltar’s government has angrily accused Spain of trying to use Brexit to forward its territorial claims after the EU proposal for a Madrid veto.
The move came after May apparently forgot to mention Gibraltar in her Article 50 letter – a move which has been widely criticised. The astounding error may have left loophole which is likely to spark a furious stand-off between Britain and Spain during future Brexit talks.
As fears over the veto grew among the people who live on the Rock – who voted in 2002 to remain under British rule – Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Downing Street sought to reassure Gibraltar that the UK will stand up for the overseas territory during the negotiations.
The negotiation guidelines set out by European Council president Donald Tusk would require Spanish agreement for the territory to be included in future agreements between the EU and UK on issues like trade.
Johnson held talks with Gibraltar’s chief minister Fabian Picardo while Downing Street highlighted comments made by May in her Commons statement on Brexit.
The Prime Minister told MPs that the territory was ‘covered by our exit negotiations’ and vowed never to enter into talks over its sovereignty against the wishes of its people.
Picardo said the territory was being singled out for ‘unnecessary, unjustified and unacceptable’ discrimination as a result of ‘a disgraceful attempt by Spain to manipulate the European Council for its own narrow political interests’.
Accusing Madrid of seeking to ‘mortgage the future relationship between the EU and Gibraltar to its usual obsession with our homeland’, Picardo said: ‘The whole world and the whole EU should know: this changes nothing in respect of our continued, exclusive British sovereignty.’
After his talks with Picardo, the Foreign Secretary said: ‘As ever, the UK remains implacable and rock-like in our support for Gibraltar.’
Spain has a long-standing territorial claim on Gibraltar, which has been held by the UK since 1713 and has the status of British overseas territory.
Any suggestion Madrid might have a say over the future of the self-governing territory, which is home to important UK military bases, causes anxiety among its 30,000 inhabitants.
Gibraltar is addressed in a single paragraph of Tusk’s nine-page document, which says: ‘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.’
Lord Boswell, chairman of the House of Lords EU Committee, said it was ‘unfortunate that the Prime Minister’s letter to Donald Tusk, triggering Article 50, made no mention of Gibraltar – the Government mustn’t give the impression that Gibraltar is an afterthought’.
He said: ‘In the absence of any clear commitment to defend Gibraltar’s interests by the Prime Minister, the door has been opened for the EU to present it as a disputed territory, without a voice of its own in negotiations that will have profound implications for its future prosperity.’
Gibraltar’s 300 Years Of British Links
Gibraltar is an outpost of Britishness at the mouth of the Mediterranean – and has been for 300 years.
The 2.3-square mile land mass, dominated by the 1,300ft limestone Rock of Gibraltar, is one of the last remaining parts of the empire.
An important naval base up to and including the Second World War, it has withstood many attempts to wrest it from British control.
The 30,000 inhabitants of the British overseas territory cling to their UK roots. Sterling currency, red post boxes, familiar British shops and banks and use of the English language are all legacies of the Rock’s long association with Britain.
It is also represented by British MEPs in European elections, being counted as part of the South West England constituency.
The results of several referendums in Gibraltar over the years, the most recent in 2002, have been overwhelmingly in favour of remaining linked to Britain.
Captured from the Moors by the Spanish in 1462, Gibraltar was taken in turn by the Royal Navy in 1704.
Nine years later it was officially handed over to Britain in the Treaty of Utrecht, and has remained in British hands ever since.
This treaty is at the heart of Spain’s claim to the land.
The Rock was ceded to Britain ‘to be held and enjoyed absolutely, with all manner of right for ever, without any exception or impediment whatsoever’.
But successive Spanish governments have argued that this is an anachronism and that Spain’s territorial integrity justifies the return of Gibraltar to Spanish control.
Critics of Spain’s attitude towards Gibraltar have pointed out that it has its own city enclaves, Ceuta and Melilla, on the north African coast, bordering Morocco.
Despite repeated demands by Morocco that the cities should be returned to its territory, Spain refuses to do so.
A new skirmish over Gibraltar occurred in 1967 when fascist Spanish leader General Franco began laying siege to the peninsula.
By 1969, the frontier between Gibraltar and Spain was closed to all traffic and pedestrians. After 16 years, the border was reopened in 1985.
The long-running dispute, however, remains a headache for the inhabitants and politicians, and is still causing irritations such as delays at the frontier where the Spaniards deliberately create long queues of traffic.
Other measures designed to cause a nuisance – which have led to rebukes from British politicians – include Spanish police and Guardia Civil boats straying into Gibraltan waters.
In June 2013, David Cameron protested to his Spanish counterpart Mariano Rajoy during a Brussels summit after shots were fired at a jet-skier.
The ‘illegal incursion’ saw a Guardia Civil boat pursue Dale Villa while he was on his jet-ski near West Beach.
Witnesses reported seeing a large number of plastic batons being fired from the vessel and splashing into the water. No-one was injured.