Why is there a Brexit flare-up over Gibraltar?

Why is there a Brexit flare-up over Gibraltar?

During the United Kingdom’s Brexit negotiations with the European Union, questions about Gibraltar have been superseded by concerns about the Northern Irish border and its backstop agreement. However, Gibraltar possesses another land border with an EU member state. This rock, jutting into the Mediterranean, has occasionally turned amicable relations between London and Madrid frosty. Why have tensions suddenly flared in recent weeks and what does it mean for the Brexit process?

Disputed Territory

Gibraltar is a British overseas territory and is also in the European Union. The territory (which shares a small land border with Spain) is self-governing. However, Britain controls matters of defence and foreign affairs. Originally taken by both British and Dutch forces in 1704 during the Wars of the Spanish Succession, Gibraltar was formally ceded by Spain to Britain in the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713. Since the Second World War Gibraltar has held two referendums concerning its sovereignty. These votes in 1967 and 2002 respectively, both chose emphatically to remain part of the United Kingdom. In each case, the majority was over 98%.

Some 34,000 citizens reside in Gibraltar and in 2016 they overwhelmingly voted to remain within the European Union; the 96% majority made it the largest Remain victory in any of the 382 counting areas. Complicating matters is the large Spanish workforce which crosses into the territory to work; 12,000 workers cross the border each day, whose interests Spain naturally wants to protect. Since 2000, the Spanish government has advocated for joint sovereignty over the rock, which the British government has rejected.

Bilateral negotiations

London and Madrid have bilaterally discussed issues arising over Gibraltar since invoking of Article 50 and as parallel negotiations to talks in Brussels. Talks between the UK and Spain originally appeared to have run smoothly. In mid-October, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez declared that talks were “already closed” when speaking at that month’s respective EU summit. Neither Sanchez nor May were forthcoming in elucidating the details of this document which would be attached to the overarching Withdrawal Agreement between the EU and the UK.  Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell claimed he expected Gibraltar to cause no more complications in the Brexit process. However, these bilateral talks are believed to cover how Brexit will influence Gibraltar with respect to issues concerning the environment, tobacco smuggling, security cooperation, citizen’s rights and taxes – all contentious points for the Spanish government.

Between a rock and a hard place

The EU-27 has tried hard to project a united front from the beginning of the protracted negotiating process.  EU’s Task Force has been forced to juggle interests of its member states when negotiation with the UK government. European Council President Donald Tusk reaffirmed the united stance maintained by the EU-27 despite appearing melancholic at Britain’s prospective departure. However, this appeared threatened at the eleventh hour when Spanish PM Pedro Sanchez began threatening to oppose the deal.

Spain appears unhappy at the lack of clarity concerning Gibraltar in the 585-page Withdrawal Agreement signed off by the EU on Sunday. The centre-left Spanish government (PSOE) faces its own domestic pressures to press claims for suzerainty over Gibraltar. The opposition Party Popular (PP) has strongly focused on the issue as a matter of national pride. PP’s prime minister Mariano Rajoy was ousted in a vote of no confidence in June. Their new leader Pablo Casado is enigmatic in his desires for Gibraltar’s territorial integrity to be restored to Spain. He is exerting pressure on the ruling PSOE party to restore this colonial exclave. With closely fought elections looming in December in the southern province of Andalucia, which borders the rock, the Gibraltar question remains extremely pertinent.

The crux of the disagreement stoking the latest flare-up of contention is due to the Spanish government’s fears over how Brexit will influence Spain’s intrinsic and longstanding economic ties with Gibraltar.  The EU members signed off the Withdrawal Agreement on Sunday, November 25th, at a special EU summit. However, this is not the end of the UK disengaging from the European Union and all its entities. The United Kingdom and EU-27 are expected to sign a trade agreement over the coming years. Spain claimed this 585-page document was too vague on Gibraltar on how a future trade agreement will affect Gibraltar, their dissent falling on Article 184. Madrid wanted to ascertain that the “territorial scope” of whatever future agreement is reached does not automatically cover Gibraltar and that the future economic relationship will also be subject to bilateral talks between Britain and Spain.

A late climbdown by May was communicated to Brussels by Sir Tim Barrow ( UK’s Permanent Representative to the EU) late on Saturday evening, hours before the EU summit which endorsed both the Withdrawal Agreement and the political declaration on the post-Brexit relationship. The British Government acknowledges any future economic agreement involving Gibraltar would have to be negotiated separately.

Looking Forward

It is important to note that at this point Spain cannot unilaterally block the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union as this is conducted simply by a qualified majority of states. Despite the competing demands and ambitions of the EU27, they are united in their negotiations through the Task Force for Article 50 and this poses no immediate problem for the UK’s departure on March 29 2019. However, the EU will also have to vote on some form of future economic agreement with the UK. It remains to be seen whether this will be a Canada style FTA, a Norway type EFTA arrangement, or something in between.

The rest also depends on what will play out in Westminster during the next three months. Cogent is the fact that any future vote with the UK as a third country can only pass with a unanimous decision. A Spanish veto over Gibraltar could grind discussions to a halt akin to CETA’s rocky trip through the EU. May’s small concession during the weekend could aide negotiations for a future trade agreement, (barring the maelstrom of Westminster politics). Expect any bilateral trade obligation to be protracted given with considerable dissent in Madrid over Gibraltar, and PP pushing the cause vocally even from the opposition.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

David Grant

David is a political risk analyst with regional specialisation in Europe. His interests include European security, Brexit and European business risk. Previously he has worked for a start-up security consultancy and at the European Union's Representation to the United Kingdom. He holds a BA in International History & Politics from the University of Leeds and an MSc in Defence, Development & Diplomacy from Durham University.