An expert's point of view on a current event.

Is Brexit Driving Gibraltar Into Europe’s Arms?

The territory at the tip of Spain will remain British on paper, but in practice Brexit has brought it closer to the EU than ever before.

Barbary macaques in Gibraltar.
Barbary macaques at the Rock of Gibraltar, a British Overseas Territory, on April 1, 2015. Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

According to legend, Gibraltar will stay British as long as the Barbary apes remain in residence. Prime Minister Winston Churchill, ever on the lookout for a good symbol, boosted their numbers during World War II to make sure of the territory’s survival. By that measure its identity is safe: Despite early fears in British tabloids that the animals might succumb to COVID-19, all 300 or so are in fine fettle.

But the next six months are likely to see much monkeying around with the status of Gibraltar—also known as the Rock, for its imposing mountain promontory—which will say more about Britain’s changing role in the world than the primates’ continued presence.   

Brexit has provided a fresh opportunity for outbursts of angst about who really has the right to the Rock—little excuse is needed to provoke nationalist neuralgia in both Spain and the United Kingdom.

The territory on the southern edge of Spain is an evergreen, potent symbol of British power and pride, and its status periodically provokes British tabloids to a frenzy—there have even been suggestions in the past by aficionados of the Falklands conflict that the Royal Navy should sail in, just to make a point. It was, after all, British and Dutch marines backed by 15,000 cannons who captured it in the first place in 1704, having failed to take Barcelona and thinking Cádiz too tough a nut to crack.

Only one great power will hugely increase its influence in this tiny territory—without deploying a single marine, let alone firing any cannons. That power is the European Union.

In one sense, the tabloids need not worry—despite the Brexit-fueled opportunity for a refreshed row with the Spanish government, the U.K. flag will continue to flutter over the two-and-a-half square miles of limestone outcropping at the tip of Spain. The Spanish have explicitly taken the issue of sovereignty off the table in the new negotiations made necessary by the U.K.’s departure from the European Union, to the dismay of some in Spain. Indeed, opposition parties like the far-right Vox call it a betrayal.

But to see this through the lens of much of the British press and many politicians is a mistake. While they focus on their fundamental preference for a past world where competition is exclusively between sovereign nations like the U.K. and Spain, they fail to notice the opportunity handed to the supranational institution they so dislike.

Everything will change, and only one great power will hugely increase its influence in this tiny territory—without deploying a single marine, let alone firing any cannons. That power is the European Union.

The fallout from Brexit is likely to diminish the U.K.’s sway in its sole remaining possession in the heart of Europe. It is unlikely that Prime Minister Boris Johnson will ever concede that “Gibraltar” is written on his heart, as Queen Mary claimed the lost territory of Calais would be engraved on hers, but the coming negotiations are unlikely to burnish the claims of Britain as an ever-increasing global power. That’s because any new deal will diminish the U.K.’s practical role and strengthen that of the EU.

Gibraltar was just one of the prizes awarded to Great Britain in 1713 in the Treaty of Utrecht, a sprawling, multifaceted effort to tie up loose ends after the long years of the War of the Spanish Succession. It stated that “the town, castle and fortifications were to be held and enjoyed for ever without any exception or impediment whatsoever” by the British. The treaty was a sign of a shifting balance of power, and that the new nation had increased its clout on the world stage. (The British also won chunks of Canada off the French and took from the Spanish the Asiento—a monopoly on selling Black slaves to the Spanish colonies of the Americas.)

The celebrated historian G.M. Trevelyan wrote that the treaty marked a significant change in the world, solidifying “the maritime, commercial and financial supremacy of Great Britain.” It also set in stone the British strategy of the balance of powers, where by careful manipulation from across the channel no one power was allowed to dominate the continent. No wonder Gibraltar has become such a symbol of British might.

A new treaty should be signed before the summer is out, and that may also mark a significant landmark in Britain’s history as a diminished power in Europe with no greater global reach than before.

While the U.K. settled a Brexit deal on Christmas Eve, it took until New Year’s Eve for Spain, the U.K., and Gibraltar to come to an agreement, after what Gibraltar’s Chief Minister Fabian Picardo described to a House of Lords committee in January as the “most hectic, most difficult—intensely political” negotiations he has ever known. If implemented, it would mean getting rid of the existing physical border between Spain and Gibraltar, making life easier for the 10,000 workers who cross daily and who currently must face work permit checks at the barrier every time.

This would be a huge symbolic shift. My very first foreign assignment was in 1985 covering the full reopening of the border, which had been shut by the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco 15 years earlier and opened for Spanish and Gibraltarian pedestrians in 1982. Amid the midnight celebrations, most people I spoke to on both sides of the border were delighted—and worried about sovereignty. Overnight, a few cars were set on fire for reasons obscure even at the time. Tellingly, the agreement to open up to all traffic had been made between Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe and the Spanish Socialist government at a European summit, a prelude to Spain joining the U.K. as a fellow member of the European Communities.

As trade barriers are going up between the U.K. and the EU, the Gibraltar agreement is a significant move in the opposite direction. While it is just a so-called framework agreement, the next step is for the European Commission to establish a mandate to negotiate a new treaty between the EU and the U.K. The Treaty of Brussels, or whatever it is eventually called, won’t replace the Treaty of Utrecht, but it will dim rather than extinguish the U.K.’s sovereign role.

Gibraltar has long had a rather odd status; it is the only British Overseas Territory that was a member of the EU, joining the European bloc with the U.K. in 1972, and it was even considered part of South West England for the purposes of European elections. Before Brexit, unlike the U.K., it wasn’t a member of the EU customs union (or the common agricultural policy) but like Britain it didn’t take part in one of the EU’s most important policies: the border-free Schengen Area.

Because Gibraltar was part of neither, the border between the Rock and Spain (“the fence” as it is known locally) is policed by both the Spanish Civil Guard and Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise. Traveling into Gibraltar by sea or air, checks are at the moment carried out by British customs and Gibraltar’s own border agency, wearing uniforms like those of British police officers. This is likely to change radically.

The plan is that Gibraltar’s port and airport become the new frontier of Schengen—the EU’s passport-free area—replacing the existing land border. Those arriving from the U.K. will have their documents checked; those coming from one of the 22 Schengen Area countries that are also EU members won’t. Rubbing in the point, the people checking the documents of British visitors will be members of the EU’s border guard, Frontex. There’s a fight brewing over whether Gibraltar will become a part of Schengen or be merely connected to it, but the direction of travel is clear enough.

You would have thought that checks of their beloved blue passports in a British territory would be enough to give Brexiteers apoplexy—but it doesn’t end there. While the U.K. has now left the customs union, the plan is that Gibraltar will join it for the very first time. The EU is likely to insist on extending its value added tax regime and its trade policies and regulations to the Rock. Gibraltar’s chief minister points out the irony that the plan is for the Rock to have a closer relationship with the EU than it ever did during the 48 years when it, and the U.K., were members of the club.

In practical terms, none of this will trouble the average British citizen much or give diplomats sleepless nights. Any eventual agreement will be a compromise with probable tangible benefits to the Gibraltarians and Spanish on both sides of the newly frictionless border.   

This is the price of Brexit: The British hold on to their pride of possession at the price of the European Union extending the reach of one of its most precious policies—the freedom of movement within its borders.

But for a long time now the Rock hasn’t been about hard power and practical advantage—it is a totem. This is the price of Brexit: The British hold on to their pride of possession at the price of the European Union extending the reach of one of its most precious policies—the freedom of movement within its borders.

The only other place under British rule to share a land border with an EU country is, of course, Northern Ireland, where history makes the issue of borders even more fraught. It is leaving the customs union while the neighboring EU member, the Republic of Ireland, naturally stays in (neither have ever been part of Schengen). With the great fear that a hard border—with customs checks and the like—could lead to political violence, the solution, currently causing a huge row, is the awkward notion of customs checks for cargo crossing the Irish Sea—in other worlds between one part of the U.K. and another.

The big difference is that Gibraltar’s residents do at least seem to share a common vision; while almost 96 percent voted to remain in the EU in the 2015 Brexit vote, in a 2002 referendum 99 percent also voted to stay exclusively British. The duality of what is on offer for the Rock would clearly divide people in Northern Ireland, by reinforcing its separateness from Great Britain and underscoring its closeness to Ireland.

With Brexit, the U.K. is not only abandoning its internal influence over the one power that does make policy for most of the continent, but it is also now likely to grant that power even more say in its one remaining European territory. It is not exactly the equivalent of the United States invading Grenada, when U.S. President Ronald Reagan totally ignored the U.K.’s role—the queen was and remains head of state on the Caribbean island—but it would scarcely lead a contemporary Trevelyan to suggest the new policy is reestablishing the “supremacy of Great Britain.”

There’s a final warning from history: The Treaty of Utrecht was only partially agreed in 1713—it took another two years to be completed. Once again, the clock is ticking, but don’t expect this to be over by the June deadline—the EU’s former chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said it will be “sensitive and difficult.” And don’t expect a future Trevelyan to suggest it cements “the maritime, commercial and financial supremacy of Great Britain” in the post-Brexit world.

As the Treaty of Utrecht was discussed in the Netherlands, a French diplomat told one of his Dutch hosts rather viciously that the negotiations would be held “de vous, chez vous, sans vous”—about you, on your turf, without you.

Although we don’t know where the new treaty will be signed or what it will be called, much of the same could be said now of the government in London. Deals will be signed about British territories without much say from British officials. It is a sign of the times that, reassured that U.K. sovereignty is still intact, the people and politicians of the Rock seem content to snuggle closer under the EU’s capacious, slightly tattered wings.

Mark Mardell is a freelance writer and broadcaster. He was the BBC’s Europe editor and North America editor. After returning to the U.K. in 2014, he presented Radio 4’s "The World This Weekend." He is currently writing a book on Brexit.