After the draft of the EU’s negotiating guidelines was released on Friday, the issue of the territorial sovereignty of Gibraltar was resurrected in the draft’s number 22 core principle which says that after Brexit, the EU and the UK would not be able to finalise any deal regarding Gibraltar, unless Spain and the UK come to an agreement first. 

The Empire strikes back: Lord Howard’s comments

Immediately after, on Sunday, 2 April, former Conservative leader Michael Howard was criticised for comparing the situation in Gibraltar with that of the Falkland Islands, whose sovereignty remains a contested matter between the UK and Argentina. 

Lord Howard said that in 1982, "another woman prime minister sent a taskforce halfway across the world to protect another small group of British people against another Spanish-speaking country. And I'm absolutely clear that our current woman prime minister will show the same resolve in relation to Gibraltar as her predecessor did."

Lord Howard’s remarks, that Theresa May would be willing to go to war like her predecessor Margaret Thatcher did in 1982, have been described as “inflammatory” and “tasteless”, especially when Sunday, marked the 35th anniversary of the start of the Falklands War. The comments were also considered to have been made in bad taste at a time where the government is about to commence the Brexit negotiations, and it needs to maintain a peaceful and measured tone. 

Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, said: "In only a few days the Conservative right are turning long-term allies into potential enemies. I hope this isn't a sign of the government's approach to the long negotiations to come. Brexiteers have gone from cheering to sabre-rattling for war in four days, it is absolutely ludicrous."

Gibraltar

The chief minister of Gibraltar, Fabian Picardo, who expressed his support for May’s Brexit negotiations, said that the Gibraltarians want to remain British and that "Gibraltar is not a bargaining chip in these negotiations. Gibraltar belongs to the Gibraltarians and we want to stay British."

May, who had talked to Picardo on Sunday, released a statement presenting her position on the subject: 

"The prime minister said we will never enter into arrangements under which the people of Gibraltar would pass under the sovereignty of another state against their freely and democratically expressed wishes, nor will we ever enter into a process of sovereignty negotiations with which Gibraltar is not content.

"The prime minister said we remain absolutely dedicated to working with Gibraltar for the best possible outcome on Brexit and will continue to involve them fully in the process."

Gibraltar, which is usually referred to as “The Rock”, is a British overseas territory and shares its border with southern Spain. Spain has an “irredentist” territorial claim over Gibraltar—“irredentism” (from Italian, meaning “unredeemed”) refers to a political movement that hopes to reclaim and reoccupy an “unredeemed”  area based on claims of historical affiliation—but Gibraltarians have dismissed Spanish sovereignty in two referenda in 1967 and in 2002. 

In 2016, after the UK voted to leave the European Union, Spain proposed to govern Gibraltar together with the UK. The EU’s draft guidelines released on Friday have rekindled old disputes, with Foreign minister Boris Johnson saying that "As ever, the UK remains implacable and rock-like in our support for Gibraltar". 

But the issue of Gibraltar will create diplomatic tension between the UK and Spain during the Brexit negotiations. Not only Lord Howard’s words were strong, but also those of the defence secretary Michael Fallon. Appearing on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show, Fallon said that “We’re going to look after Gibraltar. Gibraltar is going to be protected all the way because the sovereignty cannot be changed without the agreement of the people of Gibraltar.”

But, as Sean O’ Grady of the Independent argues, “The choice, bluntly, may be between a good deal for the UK and Gibraltar but, say, with joint sovereignty with Spain – or a crash-out-hard, hostile Brexit with the added punishment of a blockade of Gibraltar. That means closing the frontier between Gibraltar and Spain, refusing permission for flights over Spanish airspace to Gibraltar and European sanctions on financial and tax avoidance activities. Don’t rule it out.” O’Grady admits that this might sound a bit “dramatic” but “We shouldn’t pretend” that “some of the hard choices between the welfare of 64 million UK British and 30,000 UK Gibraltarians [won’t] clash.”

Spain points out that the UK needs to take it easy

There would be hard choices, but at least we know there won’t be a war. Downing Street has confirmed that it won’t be sending any task groups in Gibraltar, but avoided condemning Lord Howard’s “absurd” war threats. Spain’s foreign minister, Alfonso Dastis, told a conference today that the “tone of comments coming out of Britain, a country known for its composure” are “a little surprising.” Jack Straw, a former home and foreign secretary, told the Today programme that “The idea of Britain going to war, or Spain going to war against Britain, over Gibraltar is frankly absurd and reeks of 19th century jingoism. I doubt very much that Gibraltar will be the deal breaker.” A Conservative former attorney general, Dominic Grieve, called Howard’s language “a little bit apocalyptic”, but foreign secretary Boris Johnson was uncompromising in his view that the 300-year old rock should remain “unchanged” “and is not going to change, and cannot conceivably change without the express support and consent of the people of Gibraltar and the United Kingdom.” The rock might not be going anywhere, but perhaps some of those views expressed the last couple of days need to move on from the imperialist past.