Gibraltar Spat Shows How Bumpy the Road to Brexit Will Likely Be

  • Negotiations will bring more fights on national issues
  • May needs to prepare U.K. for idea of making concessions

Gibraltar Dispute Flares Up in Brexit Debate

Theresa May laughed off the idea that Britain might go to war with Spain over Gibraltar. But even its suggestion revealed something about the bumps in the road that the prime minister will hit as she tries to negotiate a Brexit deal.

That both countries are European Union members hasn’t stopped Spain from continuing to lay claim to Gibraltar, which lies on its southern tip. Yet there has been little sign in the Spanish press of a swelling desire to use Brexit to pursue the old argument with more aggression. Instead, the mention of the territory in EU negotiating guidelines is more likely to have reflected a desire in Madrid to ensure that Britain’s departure from the bloc doesn’t hurt Spaniards who work on the rock.

Spain won’t be the only country that has a specific concern about Brexit, and any deal will have to be acceptable to each of the bloc’s 27 other nations. Ireland is the most prominent other example, but there will be many more, according to Anand Menon, professor of European politics at King’s College London.

“These aren’t issues that have been forgotten, they’re issues that people are aware of but are just very difficult,” he said in an interview, suggesting areas from fishing rights to food labeling as potentially contentious. “Look at a country and what it specializes in, and they’ll have an issue.”

Find out more about the background to the Gibraltar dispute

Britain’s twitchy reaction to the raising of Gibraltar -- the idea of fighting a war was floated by a former leader of May’s Conservative Party and allowed to run for 24 hours before she knocked it down -- suggests some in Britain have yet to accept that other countries may also have views about what Brexit should look like.

When she triggered Britain’s exit negotiations last week, May signaled the U.K. might have to pay its share of the EU’s liabilities. A figure of 50 billion pounds ($62 billion) has been floated by the EU, and rejected by Britain, but an ICM Ltd poll for the Guardian newspaper published Monday found people were against paying even much lower amounts. At least two-thirds of those surveyed opposed paying 10 billion pounds or more. Even the idea of paying 3 billion pounds was unacceptable to almost half. 

That’s not all. The poll also found people opposed the government’s policy of continuing to obey rulings from the European Court of Justice after Brexit, in order to keep access to the EU’s single market.

Unless May can shift the conversation, it will be hard for her to get a deal that’s acceptable to voters at home. “If the background drumbeat continues to be the right-wing drum beat, it might restrict the government’s room for maneuver,” Menon said.

With Gibraltar, it fell to Europeans to calm things, with Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis pointing out on Monday that “someone in the U.K. is losing their composure.”

The Netherlands’ Bert Koenders offered some advice to Britain. “On Gibraltar, you see now how difficult the divorce is,” he told reporters. “Let’s be cool and carry on and not use too harsh language. Let’s just negotiate.”

— With assistance by Esteban Duarte, Alex Morales, and Richard Bravo

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