Madrid and London are once again locking horns over Gibraltar, the tiny British overseas territory at the southwestern foot of the Iberian peninsula that appears to have become a Brexit negotiating weapon for Spain and the EU and signals difficulties ahead for Britain.
Tensions over the territory known as “the Rock” have ebbed and flowed over the years, but they spiked again on Friday when draft guidelines setting out the EU's position in upcoming negotiations stipulated Spain must have a say over whether any post-Brexit deal is extended to Gibraltar.
A European source said the clause “was added at the request of (Spanish Prime Minister) Mariano Rajoy”.
Fearing that Spain is trying to take advantage of Brexit to impose its control over the 32,000-strong rocky outcrop, Gibraltar reacted angrily, and London pledged its support for a territory ceded to Britain in 1713 but long claimed by Madrid.
Former conservative leader Michael Howard appeared to be war-mongering at the weekend when he compared Gibraltar's fate to that of the Falklands.
“Thirty-five years ago this week, another woman prime minister sent a task force halfway across the world to defend the freedom of another small group of British people against another Spanish-speaking country,” Howard said, “and I’m absolutely certain that our current prime minister will show the same resolve in standing by the people of Gibraltar.”
The British tabloids had a field day with The Sun launching a campaign to save The Rock and labelled Spaniards “donkey-rogerers” in an editorial.
Tomorrow's front page: Up Yours Senors! pic.twitter.com/6mXe9JFGuB
— The Sun (@TheSun) April 3, 2017
But here are seven good reasons why it really isn't in Spain's interest to go after Gibraltar.
Spain’s foreign minister is no longer José Manuel García Margallo
Margallo was replaced by the much more diplomatic Dastis as foreign minister. Photo: AFP
Things might be different if Spain’s foreign ministry was still under the helm of José Manuel García Margallo.
He was held responsible for the racheting up of tensions during the summer of 2013 when crossing the border became an unbearable ordeal. And just the day after the Brexit referendum heboasted that the result meant “the Spanish flag will fly over Gibraltar sooner than (Chief Minister) Fabian Picardo thinks”.
But he was removed from his post in the cabinet reshuffle when PM Mariano Rajoy finally managed to form a government to be replaced with the rather less hotheaded Alfonso Dastis, a career diplomat who seems to want to ease tensions over the Rock.
After meeting the UK’s Brexit minister David Davis, he insisted on Monday that Madrid did not want “to put stumbling blocks in relations with the United Kingdom, or with the people of Gibraltar”.
And in an interview with El Pais on Sunday he said it was not in Spain’s interest tomake things more difficult at the frontier. There was “no intention to close the border,” he said.
British Gibraltar fuels the economy of Cadiz
Spain is only just coming out of a crippling economic crisis and the Cadiz province of Andalusia, which borders Gibraltar, is one of the poorest regions of Spain and still suffers with 35 percent unemployment (far greater than the 20 percent national average).
Currently an estimated 10,000 Spaniards cross the frontier to work in Gibraltar every day, bringing an estimated €100 million into Spain each year.
Gibraltar also buys over €400 million in services from Spain.
Spain doesn't want to risk a boycott by British tourists
With the tourist industry being one of the main driving forces of economic growth in Spain, and Britons making up one in five of foreign visitors, any potential bad feeling between Spain and the UK could have a hugely negative impact on tourism.
A hardline attitude from Spain over Gibraltar could discourage some of the 17 million British holidaymakers who came to Spain last year.
Think of the damage to exports
The UK is the top destination for Spanish exports, and Spain is already worried about the effect that Brexit will have on bilateral trade. Spanish exports to Britain are expected to fall by one billion euros per year in the event of a ‘hard-Brexit’, with the food, auto and pharmaceutical sectors especially hard-hit.
Imagine how much worse the effect would be of bad relations between the two trading partners.
“In perpetuity” means forever.
A document signed over 300 years ago outlines the status of Gibraltar. British and Dutch forces captured Gibraltar from Spain in 1704 during the War of the Spanish Succession, and Spain ceded Gibraltar to Britain in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht at the end of the war. The terms of the treaty declare that Spain ceded Gibraltar to Britain “in perpetuity”, meaning it is not up for negotiation.
What about Ceuta and Melilla
In the unlikely event that Spain did reclaim the soverignty of Gibraltar, it would raise the subject of Spain's five territories in north Africa – Penon de Velez de la Gomera, Alhucemas and the Chafarinas Islands, as well as the city enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, which are both claimed by Morocco but their populations wish to remain Spanish.
Spaniards argue, perhaps unconvincingly, that the two cities of Ceuta and Melilla never actually belonged to Morocco (which didn't exist as a nation back then) and were unoccupied before being Spanish, and that neither of them are colonies like Gibraltar, but rather full members of Spain with representatives in Madrid.
But Spain's claim to Gibraltar relies heavily on the UN principle of territorial integrity, which says “any attempt at the partial or total disruption of the national unity and the territorial integrity of a country is incompatible with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations”.
That argument can also be used in regards to Morocco's claims over Ceuta and Melilla.
Gibraltarians REALLY don't want to be Spanish
Gibraltarians celebrate their National Day. Photo: AFP
The idea of joint sovereignty has been broached before. A proposal was etched out between Britain and Spain in 2001 and 2002. But it was trashed after Gibraltarians rejected it in a November 2002 referendum on sovereignty voting overwhelmingly (98.48 percent) voted to remain British. A similar vote with 99 percent in favour of remaining British occured in 1967.
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Includes reporting from AFP