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Is Britain’s Rule over Gibraltar Subject to Undermining after Brexit?

Alwaght– While Britain prepares to pull out of the European Union under a finalized Brexit deal, Spain has called for a solution for Gibraltar dispute, threatening that if no settlement is reached on the case, Madrid will veto the Brexit deal.

The Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell last week said that Spain wanted a direct dialogue with Britain on the future of Gibraltar, adding that an agreement between the two over the disputed territory should be put both in Brexit document and also a later statement on the future of relations between Madrid and London. Otherwise, Spain will not support the Brexit agreement.

The root of the dispute

Gibraltar is a submontane peninsula that is located on the north of Gibraltar Strait and is connected to the Span’s mainland. It has an area of 6.7 kilometers with a population of about 33,000 people. After years of clashes among Britain, Spain, and the Netherlands, Madrid finally conceded to allowing Gibraltar to go under the rule of the British Empire in 1713 under the Utrecht Treaty. The deal was inked after the UK defeated Spain in a sea battle. However, Spain over the past 300 years has frequently struggled to get its territory back.

In 2006, EU-mediated negotiations launched between the two sides, with Spain for the first time accepting to sit on the negotiating table with Gibraltar representatives. The three-party negotiations, including Gibraltar chief minister Peter Caruana, led to an array of agreements on transportation, customs, communication, and visa-free travels to the contentious territory. The final outcome was that Gibraltar was agreed to be treated with EU rules like other European regions. This deal tacitly secured a common British-Spanish administration of Gibraltar. In two referendums in 1969 and 2002 in Gibraltar, a majority of the Gibraltar population voted to remain under London rule. If these two plebiscites strengthened the British position in the face of Madrid, the Brexit referendum weakened it as 96 percent of the Gibraltarians voted for Britain to remain in the EU.

How is Gibraltar significant for London and Madrid?

The Gibraltar Strait is an area bordering British, Spanish, and Moroccan territories. It is 5.4 kilometers long and 2.1 kilometers wide and links the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. The rule of Britain over Gibraltar is against Spanish interests in several ways. First, the territory is originally Spain’s and after long years of the colonial rule of Britain, Madrid expects the area to return under its rule. Second, the area is significant for fishing. But the Gibraltarians keep the Spanish fishers away from their areas, something occasionally leading to tensions. In the last confrontation, Madrid threatened to impose 50-euro fees on the entry of the Gibraltarians to Spain and to block the region’s airspace. Third, Gibraltar stretches to the territorial waters of Spain and Morocco but Britain claims 3 nautical miles (5.6 km) around Gibraltar on the northern side of the strait, putting part of it inside British territorial waters. Spain strongly opposes the claim. Fourth, Britain has 14 overseas territories, including Virgin Islands and Falkland, all legacy of the colonial period. If London lets them go, it should concede to a domino wave of independence of its overseas territories. And fifth, the Gibraltarians, due to some cultural bonds, economic interests, and tax exemptions, choose to remain part of Britain but geographically enjoy the Spanish privileges. When Britain was in the EU, Gibraltarian people had the best economic conditions. But the Brexit will mark an end to their golden times.

Play cards

Madrid has a couple of trump cards to play against London in Gibraltar case. With Brexit, Spain can withdraw privileges of customs, communications, transportation, and visa-free travel given to the Gibraltarians. The pressure will be heavy on people who for long years used such advantages and can make them review their willingness to remain with Britain. The second card is the opposition of the Special Committee on Decolonization, a United Nations body, to the continuation of the British rule over Gibraltar. The committee argues that in the post-colonial world, the British rule over the region should end, a stance playing into the Spanish hands. Another play card is Madrid’s power to oppose Brexit in EU Council and Parliament. Aside from the need to be approved by the British parliament, the exit deal needs passing by the EU Parliament and the Council. Spain can press Britain in the two European bodies. The Spanish Secretary of State for EU Affairs Luis Macro Aguiriano asserted that his country should be granted the veto right in the upcoming negotiations between the EU and Gibraltar, or Madrid will block the draft Brexit agreement.

On the other side, while the EU does not want to see other members’ exit, Spain can be next to withdraw from the 28-nation bloc. So, Brussels prefers to allow Madrid to enjoy the privileges of being in the EU and build its interests on the basis of stay in the Union. Very likely, the EU will refrain from supporting the London agenda where there is a legal vacuum. Even it can meet the Spanish demands in such condition. It has been 16 years since the last referendum on the status of Gibraltar was held. Odds are that people changed their mind about remaining under London rule. If a referendum comes against the British rule, London’s grip on the region will be extremely shaky.

In such a case, Britain will be deeply divided on how to address the situation. Some in London may choose to flex muscles as they did in August 2013 by dispatching HMS Westminster warship to Gibraltar as tensions ran high. The former Conservative leader Michael Howard has suggested in 2017 that Prime Minister Theresa May would be prepared to go to war to save Gibraltar as former British PM Margaret Thatcher once did for the Falklands with Argentina. The remarks were read as a warning message to Madrid. But May has adopted a softer position in dealing with Spain compared to the lawmakers and some of her cabinet members and opted to talk to Spain.

Anyway, Britain is now in its weakest ever position in Gibraltar dispute, something Madrid is aware of and based on which seeks to secure the largest possible privileges. Last week, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez of Spain in a Twitter post said his talks with PM May were not constructive and the two countries have “serious” disagreement.

All in all, even if London manages to finalize its highly costly deal with the EU, its political bonds to Gibraltar will not be same as the past. It will have to give concessions to satisfy the Gibraltarians which will undermine its political rule over the region.

Alwaght– While Britain prepares to pull out of the European Union under a finalized Brexit deal, Spain has called for a solution for Gibraltar dispute, threatening that if no settlement is reached on the case, Madrid will veto the Brexit deal.

The Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell last week said that Spain wanted a direct dialogue with Britain on the future of Gibraltar, adding that an agreement between the two over the disputed territory should be put both in Brexit document and also a later statement on the future of relations between Madrid and London. Otherwise, Spain will not support the Brexit agreement.

The root of the dispute

Gibraltar is a submontane peninsula that is located on the north of Gibraltar Strait and is connected to the Span’s mainland. It has an area of 6.7 kilometers with a population of about 33,000 people. After years of clashes among Britain, Spain, and the Netherlands, Madrid finally conceded to allowing Gibraltar to go under the rule of the British Empire in 1713 under the Utrecht Treaty. The deal was inked after the UK defeated Spain in a sea battle. However, Spain over the past 300 years has frequently struggled to get its territory back.

In 2006, EU-mediated negotiations launched between the two sides, with Spain for the first time accepting to sit on the negotiating table with Gibraltar representatives. The three-party negotiations, including Gibraltar chief minister Peter Caruana, led to an array of agreements on transportation, customs, communication, and visa-free travels to the contentious territory. The final outcome was that Gibraltar was agreed to be treated with EU rules like other European regions. This deal tacitly secured a common British-Spanish administration of Gibraltar. In two referendums in 1969 and 2002 in Gibraltar, a majority of the Gibraltar population voted to remain under London rule. If these two plebiscites strengthened the British position in the face of Madrid, the Brexit referendum weakened it as 96 percent of the Gibraltarians voted for Britain to remain in the EU.

How is Gibraltar significant for London and Madrid?

The Gibraltar Strait is an area bordering British, Spanish, and Moroccan territories. It is 5.4 kilometers long and 2.1 kilometers wide and links the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. The rule of Britain over Gibraltar is against Spanish interests in several ways. First, the territory is originally Spain’s and after long years of the colonial rule of Britain, Madrid expects the area to return under its rule. Second, the area is significant for fishing. But the Gibraltarians keep the Spanish fishers away from their areas, something occasionally leading to tensions. In the last confrontation, Madrid threatened to impose 50-euro fees on the entry of the Gibraltarians to Spain and to block the region’s airspace. Third, Gibraltar stretches to the territorial waters of Spain and Morocco but Britain claims 3 nautical miles (5.6 km) around Gibraltar on the northern side of the strait, putting part of it inside British territorial waters. Spain strongly opposes the claim. Fourth, Britain has 14 overseas territories, including Virgin Islands and Falkland, all legacy of the colonial period. If London lets them go, it should concede to a domino wave of independence of its overseas territories. And fifth, the Gibraltarians, due to some cultural bonds, economic interests, and tax exemptions, choose to remain part of Britain but geographically enjoy the Spanish privileges. When Britain was in the EU, Gibraltarian people had the best economic conditions. But the Brexit will mark an end to their golden times.

Play cards

Madrid has a couple of trump cards to play against London in Gibraltar case. With Brexit, Spain can withdraw privileges of customs, communications, transportation, and visa-free travel given to the Gibraltarians. The pressure will be heavy on people who for long years used such advantages and can make them review their willingness to remain with Britain. The second card is the opposition of the Special Committee on Decolonization, a United Nations body, to the continuation of the British rule over Gibraltar. The committee argues that in the post-colonial world, the British rule over the region should end, a stance playing into the Spanish hands. Another play card is Madrid’s power to oppose Brexit in EU Council and Parliament. Aside from the need to be approved by the British parliament, the exit deal needs passing by the EU Parliament and the Council. Spain can press Britain in the two European bodies. The Spanish Secretary of State for EU Affairs Luis Macro Aguiriano asserted that his country should be granted the veto right in the upcoming negotiations between the EU and Gibraltar, or Madrid will block the draft Brexit agreement.

On the other side, while the EU does not want to see other members’ exit, Spain can be next to withdraw from the 28-nation bloc. So, Brussels prefers to allow Madrid to enjoy the privileges of being in the EU and build its interests on the basis of stay in the Union. Very likely, the EU will refrain from supporting the London agenda where there is a legal vacuum. Even it can meet the Spanish demands in such condition. It has been 16 years since the last referendum on the status of Gibraltar was held. Odds are that people changed their mind about remaining under London rule. If a referendum comes against the British rule, London’s grip on the region will be extremely shaky.

In such a case, Britain will be deeply divided on how to address the situation. Some in London may choose to flex muscles as they did in August 2013 by dispatching HMS Westminster warship to Gibraltar as tensions ran high. The former Conservative leader Michael Howard has suggested in 2017 that Prime Minister Theresa May would be prepared to go to war to save Gibraltar as former British PM Margaret Thatcher once did for the Falklands with Argentina. The remarks were read as a warning message to Madrid. But May has adopted a softer position in dealing with Spain compared to the lawmakers and some of her cabinet members and opted to talk to Spain.

Anyway, Britain is now in its weakest ever position in Gibraltar dispute, something Madrid is aware of and based on which seeks to secure the largest possible privileges. Last week, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez of Spain in a Twitter post said his talks with PM May were not constructive and the two countries have “serious” disagreement.

All in all, even if London manages to finalize its highly costly deal with the EU, its political bonds to Gibraltar will not be same as the past. It will have to give concessions to satisfy the Gibraltarians which will undermine its political rule over the region

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