Gibraltar May be the First Brexit Casualty

It’s been 300 years, and people are still sore over the rock of Gibraltar.

For those unfamiliar, Gibraltar is located on the southern tip of Spain, across the Strait of Gibraltar from Morocco. Since 1713, when Spain ceded it to the British Empire, Gibraltar has been a protectorate of the United Kingdom. It is now home to 30,000 people, a British military base, and the eponymous rock.

Since its annexation, Gibraltar has been a point of tension between Spain and the United Kingdom, the Spanish arguing that British ownership of the settlement is a violation of their sovereignty. The British, for their part, argue that they have always held Gibraltar and will continue to do so.

Brexit, and its imminent implementation, has brought this conflict bubbling back up to the surface.

Last Friday the European Union offered Spain the right to veto any decisions regarding Gibraltar after a successful British withdrawal from the EU. In effect, this would mean that before any new agreements are established between Europe and the UK regarding Gibraltar, they must be cleared by Spain first.

A diplomat who asked to remain anonymous told Reuters, "This seems intended to give Spain something so they don't try to hold the whole withdrawal treaty hostage over it."

That tactic on the part of Brussels may prove prudent. Inigo Mendez de Vigo, the Spanish minister of education, said Friday, “It is what we wanted and what we have said from the beginning... The recognition by the European Union of the legal and political situation that Spain has defended fully satisfies us.”

While the concession may seem small, the leadership in London and Gibraltar would beg to differ.

Fabian Picardo, the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, released the following statement: “This is a disgraceful attempt by Spain to manipulate the European Council for its own, narrow, political interests [...] a clear manifestation of the predictably predatory attitude that we anticipated Spain would seek to abusively impose on its partners.”

He was supported by British foreign secretary Boris Johnson, who tweeted on Friday, “As ever, the UK remains implacable & rock-like in our support for Gibraltar.”

Rock-like though British support may be, there is likely little they can do to stop Spain from getting whatever terms they dictate.

While there is no fear of reannexation or incorporation into Spain more broadly, Gibraltar is now quite literally between a rock and a hard place. Once Britain withdraws from the EU, the citizens in Gibraltar will lose their free access across European borders, and it would be up to the discretion of the Spanish government to establish entry protocols.

What those protocols might be is purely speculative at this point, although citizens there are afraid that things will return to the 1969 status quo when Francisco Franco closed the borders to Gibraltar and they stayed that way for almost twenty years. Such isolation looms again, and Gibraltarians fear that Spain will use that leverage to slowly eke out more influence in the territory.

This problem is exacerbated by Gibraltar’s autonomous government, which does not need permission from London to pass legislation within its own territory. A zone of autonomy, with shared administration between Britain and Spain, is certainly not off the table.

Worse still for the British government is what an agreement like this will mean for its other holdings, most notably Northern Ireland where the wounds of decades of armed conflict have barely healed. A restricted border there could inflame tensions anew and spell disaster for citizens of the UK in Ireland.

British Prime Minister Theresa May made special mention of the delicate situation in Northern Ireland in a letter she sent to the EU last week outlining her plan for a smooth Brexit. The future of Gibraltar was not mentioned.

It may well be that May understands that her country has voted to do an unpopular thing, an inconvenience to the rest of Europe, and that they are in no position to be making demands. A concession on Gibraltar, and continued cooperation with the Spanish, could smooth the whole transition and ensure that the UK can keep things friendly with the mainland, though that may come at the expense of the sovereignty of the rock.

The cruel irony in all of this is that Gibraltar voted 97% remain in the Brexit referendum. They are now the ones who must suffer for the decisions of their countrymen and are most at the mercy of European interests.

While Gibraltar may be dissatisfied this week, the UK is a long way from out of the woods on Brexit. Each of the 27 member states of the EU can veto the deal for any reason, which means that the concessions on Gibraltar may sting, but they are far from the last that the UK will have to make before they can successfully withdraw.

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