The Rock the EU is happy to get rid of

According to their draft “negotiation guidelines” for Brexit, the UK’s 27 partners agree that after the United Kingdom leaves the EU, no agreement between the Union and the UK may apply to the territory of Gibraltar without the agreement of Spain.

Gibraltarians must have seen this coming; the UK government, however, reacted surprised and there was an outcry among British nationalists and, predictably, the rabid tabloids.

There should not have been.  With Britain due to become a third country again, the dispute over Gibraltar will cease to become an intra-EU matter. We will be back to the days when either the UK or Spain (or indeed both) were outside the EU and, the rest of the Member States, frankly, are glad to see the territory’s status become an Anglo-Spanish matter again. In fact, when it comes to Gibraltar many in Brussels and other capitals have heaved a sigh of relief.

In the 30 years during which Gibraltar was effectively inside the EU, things mostly went well for the Rock. The territory saw an economic boom which probably would not have happened without the common framework represented by EU rules and regulations. But it wasn’t all rosy, for the disagreement between London and Madrid over the application of EU legislation to Gibraltar (and its airport in particular, which Spain claims is partly built on land not belonging to the territory) kept simmering and repeatedly blocked such legislation from being adopted, creating serious annoyance for the other Member States. However, given the centuries-old intricacies of the matter and the absence of any desire to take sides, Europe kept silent.

Since Gibraltar is under UK sovereignty but not actually part of the UK, it is perfectly logical that a future EU-UK agreement will not automatically apply to the territory. For this to be the case, a special clause or a separate agreement must be worked out. What the EU-27 have now said is that Spain – the only of their members to care about Gibraltar – will have a right of veto over any such clause or agreement.

Another option, although it isn’t mentioned, would be for Spain and the UK to negotiate a bilateral agreement over Gibraltar. But that could not cover trade since the EU alone can negotiate trade agreements with other territories – effectively, therefore, this is not on the table.

This need not necessarily mean that no deal over Gibraltar can be struck. Spain has no interest in killing the goose that lays golden eggs – Gibraltar is an important factor for the regional economy of Andalusia. But it could potentially force the UK to compromise on some issues without seriously jeopardizing the jobs and other benefits that, directly or indirectly, depend on Gibraltar thriving.

To put it clearly: Any difficulties arising from Brexit for Gibraltar – or other Crown territories that constitutionally are not part of the UK – are entirely rooted in those territories’ special links to London. It was always clear that Brexit would create problems for the Rock. That’s why Gibraltarians overwhelmingly voted “remain”. They knew where their interests lie.

Although Spain isn’t happy with the territory’s current status it hasn’t threatened to invade or annex Gibraltar. Any talk of going to war over Gibraltar – as could be heard in London – is therefore total nonsense. Those who resort to such martial rhetoric are exactly the same who advocated turning the clock back by 30 years (for Gibraltar, and nearly 45 for the UK) in the first place. Spaniards and Brits these days “invade” each other carrying tourist guides or sunscreen. Nostalgia is a bad guide to the future.

In her letter of 29 March to the European Council, Theresa May stated that the UK was aware the calling of article 50 would have consequences. It will indeed have plenty of effects that Leavers did not anticipate or willingly ignored. Gibraltar’s fate is just one of them.

Latest Articles by Michael Tscherny