As Brexit Looms, the Rock Is in a Hard Place

In Gibraltar, a British territory, 96 percent of the population voted against Brexit, but they are also adamantly opposed to joint rule by Spain. It might be time to reconsider.

A fisherman holds a Spanish flag during a protest in the bay of Algeciras, near the Rock of Gibraltar, on August 18, 2013.
A fisherman holds a Spanish flag during a protest in the bay of Algeciras, near the Rock of Gibraltar, on August 18, 2013. (MARCOS MORENO/AFP/Getty Images)

GIBRALTAR—Ever since the Brexit process began two-and-a-half years ago, there has been much hand-wringing about the prospect of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland if the United Kingdom leaves the European Union without a formal exit agreement. This is especially true now, following the emphatic defeat of U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal in the British Parliament on Jan. 15, and the amendments to it that were voted on in London earlier this week. But there is another British territory sharing a border with an EU country that has received far less attention.

Indeed, the future of Gibraltar, a British overseas territory on the Iberian Peninsula’s southern tip, is as uncertain as ever. The Spanish government has proposed that Spain and Britain share sovereignty of this disputed patch of land—an idea that, in theory, has considerable advantages. Despite the centuries-old dispute between Spain and the U.K. over Gibraltar, as well as the territory’s pre-Brexit resistance to the prospect of Spanish rule, it might be time for all involved parties to consider the controversial notion afresh.

Speaking last November, Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said that by splitting sovereignty of the Rock, as the territory is colloquially known, the British and Spanish governments would “resolve a dispute that has been going for over 300 years” (since Gibraltar was ceded to the U.K. in 1713 as part of the Treaty of Utrecht). Yet Fabian Picardo, Gibraltar’s chief minister, dismissed the proposal in unambiguous terms: “If anyone in Spain … believes that we will ever compromise on our sovereignty, they are wrong. The concept of joint sovereignty or any dilution of our sovereignty is a dead duck,” he declared in his New Year’s address to Gibraltarians earlier this month.

Although Northern Ireland has assumed a more prominent role in the Brexit negotiations than Gibraltar, there are striking parallels between the two. Picardo’s commitment to remaining wholly part of the U.K. has its counterpart in the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which insists Northern Ireland must not be treated differently from the rest of Britain after Brexit. DUP leader Arlene Foster has been emphatic in stating the party’s “blood red” line—namely, that there be “no new regulatory alignment” for Northern Ireland after the U.K. leaves the EU. Foster’s party props up May’s minority government in London, so it possesses considerable clout (some say too much) in the Brexit talks.

Its commitment to the “blood red” line means that the DUP opposes the backstop. This is a hotly-disputed measure which would maintain an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland if a no-deal Brexit occurs, and that would enable Northern Ireland to remain part of the EU customs union and single market. It was because of the inclusion of this “toxic” stipulation—as Foster called it in a tweet—that the pro-Brexit party voted against May’s withdrawal agreement on Jan. 15. Both Picardo and Foster, then, defend the status of their respective territories as parts of the U.K. and share an aversion to the prospect of any external hegemony, whether from Spain in Gibraltar’s case or from Brussels in Northern Ireland’s. (This Tuesday, British MPs voted to replace the backstop with “alternative arrangements,” but the EU remains as committed to it as ever).

Yet the most recent proposals for shared control of Gibraltar by Britain and Spain, made in late 2016 by then-Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s conservative government, wouldn’t necessarily undercut Gibraltarians’ independence in the way that Picardo foresees.

In October of that year, Spain informed the United Nations that it had presented a plan for joint sovereignty to the British government: It contained measures to retain Gibraltar’s self-governance, enable Gibraltarians to preserve their U.K. citizenship (and to also apply for Spanish nationality if they wanted to), and, crucially, to maintain the territory’s access to the European single market and other EU privileges.

These proposals are light on details because talks about joint sovereignty are still in their infancy. The closest thing either government has to a set of guidelines for shared control of Gibraltar after Brexit is a six-article protocol on the Rock contained in May’s proposed withdrawal deal.

This protocol creates three British-Spanish bilateral committees, reporting to a panel of EU and U.K. representatives, whose task is to ensure that the two countries cooperate on issues such as taxation, the rights of cross-border workers, border control, and smuggling. Clearly, many questions remain if Spain and the U.K. are to effectively share control of Gibraltar post-Brexit, including which of the two countries would deal with a ship of migrants rescued as it tried to cross from Africa?

Light on detail as it may be, Spain’s conception of joint sovereignty has potential benefits for all parties involved. Given that 96 percent of Gibraltarians voted to remain in the EU in 2016, a post-Brexit arrangement that guaranteed continued membership of the single market would speak to the territory’s democratically expressed desire. Again, there’s a parallel with Northern Ireland, where 56 percent voted against Brexit and where continued membership of the aforementioned EU institutions would result in a soft border with the Republic of Ireland (as specified by the backstop). Ironically, though, this is precisely what its most vocal political group opposes.

The problem for Gibraltar is that future membership of the EU after Brexit is only possible if the territory renounces full U.K. affiliation and annexes itself (at least partly) to Spain—something that both its people and the British government have so far resisted.

In a post-Brexit EU, the possibility of preferential treatment for an entirely British Gibraltar has been ruled out by Brussels (as it has also been for Scotland, where 62 percent voted to remain in the EU). Yet a post-Brexit differentiation between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain is exactly what the backstop guarantees: For that reason, the DUP argues that it would create a border in the Irish Sea and threaten the unity of the U.K.

Another key advantage of joint sovereignty concerns diplomacy. At a time when Gibraltarians, Britons in Spain, and Spaniards in the U.K. are worrying about impending changes to their status and rights, joint control of the Rock could be a way for Spain and Britain to ensure a harmonious post-Brexit alliance. There is something archaic and polarizing about the historical argument over Gibraltar: Shared sovereignty of the territory between the dispute’s two antagonists would be a way, as Sánchez has said, of bringing it to an amicable conclusion.

However, recent talks between the U.K. and Spain about Gibraltar’s post-Brexit status justify skepticism about the feasibility of joint sovereignty. Last November, Sánchez threatened to withhold Spain’s support for a proposed withdrawal agreement unless the deal explicitly gave his country a veto in future talks about the Rock’s trading connections with a post-Brexit EU. The Spanish prime minister duly secured agreement, from both the European Council and European Commission, that no proposals regarding the U.K.’s post-Brexit relationship with the EU will apply to Gibraltar unless Spain approves. This largely semantic tweak secured Sánchez’s backing for the agreement, although he’s received no assurance from either London or Brussels that the Gibraltar-Spain border will remain open in the case of a hard or no-deal Brexit. To put it simply, there is no backstop where the Rock is concerned.

After Sánchez’s ultimatum, May was criticized for conceding too much to the Spanish government. Some critics claimed that she had used Gibraltar as a pawn in order to get her deal through, thus placing the territory at Spain’s mercy in a post-Brexit Europe. She attempted to mollify Gibraltarians, saying that “we will always stand by you. We are proud that Gibraltar is British and our position on sovereignty has not and will not change.” Hardly an announcement signaling readiness for joint dominion, it caused Sánchez to tweet that the positions of the Spanish and British governments “remain[ed] far away” from each another as far as Gibraltar was concerned.

This has been the case for some time. Spain has always maintained that the U.K. has no legal right to Gibraltar, particularly the isthmus, as the thin strip of land connecting the Rock to Andalusia is called. The backing for this claim is Article X of the Treaty of Utrecht, which only ceded “the town and castle of Gibraltar, together with the port, fortifications, and forts thereunto belonging.” Despite not being part of the original package, according to Spain, the isthmus is now home to Gibraltar’s airport, British military barracks, and the Spain-U.K. border. In fact, the Spanish government has made a separate request for joint ownership of the Rock’s airport after Brexit—an entirely reasonable request given that, once you’ve landed there, you can stroll into either Spain or Britain.

With this centuries-old case in mind, Teodoro García Egea, the deputy leader of Spain’s conservative People’s Party, said last November that “there is no other option than a Spanish Gibraltar.” This has long been the Spanish position. Indeed, Fernando Castiella, the minister of foreign affairs in Francisco Franco’s dictatorship, made the first official request to reclaim the 2.6 square mile territory in 1966.

He stipulated that the Treaty of Utrecht be canceled, that Gibraltar be returned to Spain, that the British military base on the isthmus could remain but be used only according to a specific Anglo-Spanish agreement, and that a U.N.-backed “Personal Statute” for Gibraltarians be drawn up to protect their cultural interests. Castiella’s proposals were rejected by the U.K. government and by a referendum in Gibraltar in 1967, in which 99.6 percent of its citizens voted to remain under British control.

In another key referendum in 2002, the idea of Spain and the U.K. sharing governance of Gibraltar was put to the Rock’s residents. Ninety-nine percent rejected the idea. But that was long before June 2016’s Brexit vote, and one wonders if Gibraltarians might be less unanimous if consulted on the matter today. If a hard or no-deal Brexit resulted in a tightened border on the isthmus, they would face a conundrum like Northern Ireland’s—the loss of a convenient and commercially beneficial fluid frontier with Gibraltar’s closest neighbor.

Certainly, an open Spain-U.K. border would maintain the mutually advantageous relationship that exists between Gibraltar and the Campo de Gibraltar area of neighboring Andalusia. For the 8,000 Spaniards who cross the border every day to work on the Rock, there aren’t many opportunities at home: Andalusia has one of the highest unemployment rates in Spain. In turn, Gibraltar’s economy benefits from their services and skills, and from the ease with which tourists in southern Spain can visit this singular territory: Indeed, from the scruffy Andalusian pueblo of La Línea de la Concepción, it’s just a 45-minute walk over the border to Main Street, in the heart of Gibraltar’s lively Old Town.

Recognizing the benefits of this arrangement, Picardo told members of the European Parliament in January 2017 that he would consider “any reasonable solution” to maintain a soft border with Spain post-Brexit. But as far as Gibraltar’s chief minister is concerned, cooperation stops short of letting the Spanish government have a say in Gibraltarians’ affairs—a notion he sees as a threat to the Rock’s status as a self-governing part of the U.K.

Now that May’s withdrawal deal is set to undergo some substantial changes over the next couple of months, the Brexit canvas has effectively been wiped clean. It could be time for Gibraltar, Spain, and the U.K. to consider some form of joint sovereignty of this unique territory once again, even if it means letting go of a 300-year-old argument. Perhaps now, for all parties involved, the benefits would outweigh the sacrifices.

Mark Nayler is a freelance journalist based in Spain. He writes on Spanish politics and culture for southern Spain's English-language newspaper, Sur in English, and for The Spectator.

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