U.K.’s Brexit Alliance With Spain Threatened by Gibraltar Spat

  • Former Conservative leader says May would go to war over rock
  • Britain had hoped for Spanish support in EU negotiations

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Theresa May’s hopes that Spain might be an ally in her Brexit negotiations were in jeopardy after a spat over the status of Gibraltar escalated to the point where one senior member of her party suggested the prime minister would be ready to go to war over the territory.

Michael Howard, who led the Conservative Party from 2003 to 2005, made a comparison between the simmering dispute with Spain over Gibraltar and the 1982 Falklands War between the U.K. and Argentina. He repeated the implied threat in subsequent interviews.

“I can see no harm in reminding them what kind of people we are,” Howard told Channel 4 news on Sunday.

The heated rhetoric, just four days after May triggered two years of Brexit talks, hinted at the diplomatic minefield the U.K. will have to negotiate as it sets about extricating itself from the European Union and establishing a new relationship with its biggest market.

Read more: Your Guide to Key Dates in Brexit Negotiations

The first indication of trouble came on Friday, when it emerged that EU President Donald Tusk had handed Spain a determining say on whether any Brexit deal will apply to Gibraltar, an area of less than three square miles located at Spain’s southern tip which has been controlled by Britain since 1713.

The move caused consternation in Britain and in Gibraltar, because Spanish ministers have suggested that they’ll seek joint sovereignty of the rock. On Sunday, the territory’s chief minister, Fabian Picardo, spoke to May to seek assurances that Gibraltar’s interests would be protected.

Showing Resolve

While May, according to her office, used the call to reiterate Britain’s position that Gibraltar’s status isn’t up for negotiation, others were less temperate with their language.

“Thirty-five years ago this week, another woman prime minister sent a taskforce halfway across the world to defend the freedom of another small group of British people against another Spanish-speaking country,” Howard told Sky News. “I’m absolutely certain that our current prime minister will show the same resolve in standing by the people of Gibraltar.”

Tim Farron, leader of the opposition Liberal Democrats, was scathing. “It is unbelievable that within a week of triggering Article 50 there are Conservatives already discussing potential wars with our European neighbors,” he said in an emailed statement.

Threat to Peace

Away from the television studios, a British war with Spain remains unlikely, but the row shows the danger that the coming Brexit talks are diverted by issues which had been considered settled. In particular, the possibility of a restored border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is viewed by many as a real threat to peace there. 

And heated discussions with Spain make it less likely the country will play the friendly role in the talks that Britain had hoped it might. The two countries have deep trade and tourism ties, as well as many of each others citizens as residents.

That makes a swift resolution of the Gibraltar issue in Britain’s interests. But for May’s political health, it can’t involve anything that looks like a concession.

“We are very clear that there cannot be a change in the status and sovereignty of Gibraltar unless the people of Gibraltar agree to it -- and they don’t,” Defense Secretary Michael Fallon told the BBC’s Andrew Marr show on Sunday. The territory’s own lawmakers will be “involved throughout” the talks, he said.

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