Gibraltar flung to the forefront prior to Brexit negotiations

Fabian Picardo in Gibraltar the day Article 50 was triggered.
Fabian Picardo in Gibraltar the day Article 50 was triggered. / REUTERS
  • Governments try to calm tensions caused by the clause in the European Council's draft guidelines that effectively would allow Spain to veto future trade deals involving the Rock

For many who voted for Brexit in last year’s EU referendum, Wednesday 29 March was a long-awaited day of celebration. Triggering Article 50 was like firing a party gun and releasing colourful streamers to add to the fun and festivities.

A few days later, however, those festive strips of paper were limp and tangled and some of the British media even began talking about sending warships to Spain, after the content of the European Council’s draft guidelines for the Brexit negotiations became known.

Clause 22

The draft guidelines were issued on Friday. They take a firm line, and make it clear that the EU “will act as one” in negotiations over Britain’s withdrawal, but will be “constructive throughout”. They reiterate the EU’s wish to have the United Kingdom as a close partner in the future. However, Clause 22 appeared to come as a shock to the UK and Gibraltar:

“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.”

Like the other member countries of the EU, Spain will have an automatic veto over any of the UK’s Brexit negotiations, but the wording of this clause seems somewhat ambiguous as it appears to refer to agreements after the UK has left. Its inclusion, however, is important for several reasons:

Firstly, it appears to acknowledge that Spain has a claim to Gibraltar, which it ceded in perpetuity to Britain over 300 years ago; secondly, it indicates that bilateral discussions between the UK and Spain would be in order. This is something upon which Spain has been insisting in the past, refusing to take part in trilateral talks in which Gibraltar was involved; thirdly, it places Gibraltar as a bargaining chip in the Brexit negotiations.

"Disgraceful attempt"

A statement issued by the Gibraltar government on Friday afternoon said that “Gibraltar has shamefully been singled out […] for unfavourable treatment by the Council, at the behest of Spain,” and quoted chief minister Fabian Picardo as saying “This is a disgraceful attempt by Spain to manipulate the European Council for its own, narrow, political interests. Brexit is already complicated enough without Spain trying to complicate it further.”

Amid anger that the British prime minister appeared to have forgotten about Gibraltar in her Brexit negotiations, Picardo appeared on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show on Sunday, where he stressed to interviewer Eddie Mair that these were only draft guidelines, and that they did not mention sovereignty over Gibraltar.

He insisted that Gibraltar is fully involved in the discussions about Brexit, and said it wasn’t important that Theresa May hadn’t mentioned it in her letter to European Council president Donald Tusk because Gibraltar is referred to “tangentially” in the Brexit White Paper.

The UK’s defence secretary, Michael Fallon, confirmed when he appeared later on the same show, saying that Gibraltar was referenced eight times in the White Paper. Picardo also said that any trade deals etc. agreed between the EU and the UK should automatically apply to Gibraltar.

Media explosion

By then, however, some of the British media had begun to accuse Spain of using the Brexit negotiations to make a “land grab” for Gibraltar, and matters came to a head when former Conservative Party leader Michael Howard suggested to Sky News on Sunday that Theresa May would be prepared to go to war to protect Gibraltar in the same way that Margaret Thatcher did over the Falklands.

Social media exploded, with heated arguments between people who thought it would be best for Gibraltar to accept Spain’s joint or sole sovereignty in order to remain in the EU and others who urged the British government to take military action against Spain to stop it “getting its hands” on the British Overseas Territory.

Such was the hostility expressed towards Spain by some elements of the media over the weekend, that on Monday Spanish foreign minister Alfonso Dastis said that some in the UK were losing their cool over Gibraltar unnecessarily, and that the Spanish government was “surprised” by the tone of some of the comments. However, with regard to Clause 22 of the draft EC guidelines, he insisted that as the EU is negotiating Brexit as a bloc, it is obliged to support Spain and not the UK’s position with regard to Gibraltar.

This was like a red rag to a bull for newspapers such as The Sun, which launched a ‘Gibraltar Campaign’ and featured the front page headline ‘Up Yours Senors – our message to meddling leaders of Spain and the EU” on Tuesday.

Wait and see

In general, politicians in the UK and Gibraltar are keeping calm. The British government has reiterated its support for Gibraltar and confirmed that it will continue to be fully involved and protected in the negotiations, and Gibraltar seemed prepared to wait and see what happens at the EU’s Brexit summit later this month. However, on Tuesday morning Fabian Picardo did give in to local pressure and take the step of calling on the EU to remove Clause 22 from the draft guidelines.

In Gibraltar itself, life is going on as usual and many people believe this is just another storm in a teacup and will die out in due course. As one woman said, resignedly: “We’re used to it; but we’re a bit fed up of being used as a pawn in a longstanding political chess game. We just want to be left in peace”.