Spain ‘surprised’ by Britain’s belligerent tone on Gibraltar

Spain voiced surprise at Britain's tone on the future of Gibraltar on Monday after a former British political leader compared the dispute over the Rock with the Falklands conflict.

Spain 'surprised' by Britain's belligerent tone on Gibraltar
People walk past a currency exchange office backdropped by the "Rock" in Gibraltar on June 24, 2016. Photo: AFP

Michael Howard, a former leader of the ruling Conservative Party, noted on Sunday that former PM Margaret Thatcher took military action after Argentine forces invaded the Falkland Islands 35 years ago and said current leader Theresa May would “show the same resolve” on Gibraltar.

Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis said Madrid was taken aback by such comments.

“The Spanish government is a little surprised by the tone which the United Kingdom has adopted, a country known for being phlegmatic.

“On this subject, the traditional British phlegmatism is conspicuous by its absence,” Dastis said.

May on Sunday insisted she would “never” allow Gibraltar to slip from British control to allay the fears of visiting Chief Minister of Gibraltar Fabian Picardo.

British foreign minister Boris Johnson added that “Gibraltar is not for sale.”

He said on Monday that London's position was “very, very clear, which is that the sovereignty of Gibraltar is unchanged, and it's not going to change.”

With a population of just over 32,000, Gibraltar has been a British overseas territory since 1713 but Spain has long laid claim to it.

Following Brexit, the European Union says Spain would have to agree to extend any trade deal between the bloc and Britain to Gibraltar, meaning Madrid could potentially block the latter's access to a trade accord.

Commercially, the tiny territory is heavily reliant on its small land border with Spain and last year's Brexit vote is a source of concern in Gibraltar, whose residents voted massively in favour of staying.

Dastis said Madrid is not out to make things more difficult at the frontier, telling the El Pais daily in an interview published Sunday there was “no intention to close the border.”

Spanish dictator Francisco Franco closed the border with Gibraltar outright in 1969. Free travel between the two sides was only fully restored in 1985, ten years after his death.

After Britain voted to leave the EU, Madrid proposed shared sovereignty, arguing that would allow Gibraltar to stay in the bloc.

But Gibraltarians overwhelmingly voted down that idea in a 2002 referendum.

READ ALSO: Theresa May says she will 'never' cede Gibraltar to Spain


Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

After years of campaigns and promises British citizens living abroad finally won the lifelong right to vote in UK general elections in April 2022. But campaigners say more needs to be done to allow all those Britons abroad to be able cast their votes easily.

Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

What’s in the law?

The Elections Act 2022 introduced several changes to the current legislation on electoral participation. Among these, it removed the rule by which British citizens lose their voting rights in the UK if they have lived abroad for more than 15 years

The new rules also abolished the requirement to have been previously registered in the UK electoral roll to become an overseas voter. In addition, the registration in the electoral roll will now last up to three years instead of only one year.

It is estimated that these changes could increase the number of overseas voter registrations by some 3 million. But the way new measures will be applied in practice is still to be defined.

READ ALSO: ‘Mixed feelings’ – British citizens in Europe finally get right to vote for life

Defining the practicalities

Under the new law, Britons living abroad will have to register to vote in the last place they were registered in the UK. This means that people who have never lived in the UK will be ineligible to vote, regardless of how long they have been overseas, while those who left when they were children will be able to use a parent or guardian’s address.

But given that the UK does not require residents to register with local councils, how to prove previous UK residence? “Typical documents accepted as a proof of residence are Council tax or utilities bills, but not everyone will have them or will have kept them in an international move,” says Fiona Godfrey, co-founder of the British in Europe coalition.

Ballot papers are pictured in stacks in a count centre as part of the 2019 UK general election. (Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN / AFP)

Other questions concern how people will effectively cast their ballot. UK citizens overseas will be able to vote by post or by proxy or in person at their polling station if they are in the UK at the time of the election. However, few people are likely to travel to the UK for an election and in the past there have problems and delays with postal voting.

The Electoral Commission has recommended that overseas electors appoint a proxy to vote on their behalf. But who could that be for people who have been away from their constituency for a long time?

New secondary legislation will have to answer these questions, defining how to be included in the electoral roll and how to exercise the voting right in practice.

According to British in Europe, the government should present draft legislation in the first half of the year so that the parliament can adopt it before summer and registrations of overseas voters can start in the autumn.

British in Europe survey

British in Europe are currently running a survey to understand the difficulties UK citizens abroad may face in the registration and voting process, as well as their intention to participate in elections.

The survey asks for instance which documents people can access to prove their previous residence in the UK, what problems they had voting in the past, and if and how they plan to vote in the future.

“We need to get an up-to-date picture of British citizens living around the world and have information to make recommendations to the government, as it prepares secondary legislation,” Godfrey said. “If millions of people will exercise their voting rights, there will be consequences for council registration offices, post office and authorities that will manage the process, among other things” she argued.

The right to vote concerns only UK parliamentary elections and national referendums, not elections in the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, or at local level.

The survey is open to UK citizens living anywhere in the world and is available at this link.