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Explainer: What's going on with Gibraltar and why is Spain threatening to derail the Brexit deal?

Gibraltar is a British Overseas Territory, located near the southernmost tip of Spain.

The Rock of Gibraltar
The Rock of Gibraltar
Image: Ben Birchall via PA Images

A TINY AREA at the southern tip of mainland Spain has caused a hiccup in the Brexit deal agreed between London and Brussels last week. 

EU guidelines state that Spain must have a say on whether any post-Brexit deal applies to the British territory of Gibraltar, and the country has long laid claims to the region.

British Prime Minister Theresa May is due to sign a treaty with European Union leaders to leave the bloc on Sunday, if Spain does not stand in the way. 

However, Spain’s Foreign Minister Josep Borrell yesterday warned after a meeting of EU leaders that the draft deal does not spell out how Gibraltar should be handled. 

And that has led to tensions between Spain and Britain. 

But before we tackle what that means, let’s take a look at the basics. 

What is Gibraltar? 

Gibraltar is a British Overseas Territory, located near the southernmost tip of Spain.

map Gibraltar is a tiny area near the southernmost tip of Spain. Source: Google Maps

It has an area of 6.7square-km. To give that a little perspective, Dundalk is four times the size of Gibraltar, and Dublin is over one hundred times bigger.

Around 30,000 people live in the densely populated area.

It has a border with Spain, running 1.2km east to west. Identity checks are required to pass the border.

Why is it a British territory? 

This dates back to the beginning of the 18th century. The king of Spain, Charles II, had died childless in 1700 and left a power vacuum across a vast empire. A war between European leaders followed.

In 1704, an Anglo-Dutch fleet captured the town of Gibraltar. Spain was at war with the Austrians and wanted to ensure Britain left the war.

So, in 1713, the treaty of Utrecht was signed, ceding control of Gibraltar to Great Britain.

Gibraltar tensions A general view of the Gibraltar border corssing into Spain taken from the Gibraltan side Source: Ben Birchall via PA Images

Modern-day Gibraltar has its own parliament. Its 1964 constitution lets residents decide which country has sovereignty over them.

On two occasions, in 1967 and 2002, residents have voted to remain under British rule.

So, what has changed since then? 

Well, in short… Brexit. 

Gibraltarians voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU with 96% of voters seeking to remain.

In the wake of the referendum result last June, the Spanish government eyed an opportunity to start the debate again and called for joint sovereignty over Gibraltar.

Officially, the UK government has sought to ensure that Gibraltar remains a territory, and has said it will protect its interests.

The House of Lords published a report entitled “Brexit: Gibraltar” at the beginning of March 2017.

The report said: “We fully endorse the UK government’s commitment never to enter into sovereignty discussions against the will of the Gibraltarian people.

At the same time, we note the risk that Spain will seek to involve the sovereignty dispute either in the negotiations under article 50 or in future negotiations on a UK-EU free trade agreement.
The government must be vigilant to resist any such attempt.

The report added that “whatever means are available” should be used to resist encroachment by Spain upon Gibraltar’s sovereignty.

When the UK triggered article 50, the issue of Gibraltar reared its head again. 

At the time, former UK conservative party leader Lord Michael Howard said that Prime Minister Theresa May would be prepared to go to war over the Rock of Gibraltar, with the same resolve that Margaret Thatcher went to war with Argentina over the Falklands in the 1980s. 

However, that issue died downed for some time … until last week. 

What’s the problem now? 

Well, after almost two years of negotiations, Britain’s departure from the EU finally progressed this week when draft withdrawal terms were agreed between both sides.

The draft agreement covers the terms under which Britain will leave the EU next March, including arrangements about the backstop, a financial settlement for leaving the bloc, and the rights of British citizens in Europe.

This draft agreement has been denounced across Britain’s political spectrum since it was unveiled on Wednesday night. 

However, May is due to sign a treaty with EU leaders to leave the bloc on Sunday – that is if Spain does not stand in its way. 

Spain: First Council of Ministers of the President Pedro Sanchez Josep Borrell Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

As noted above, Spain’s Foreign Minister Josep Borrell warned yesterday after a meeting of EU ministers that the draft deal does not spell out how Gibraltar should be handled.

Basically, he said the text does not make it clear that future negotiations on ties between Brussels and post-Brexit Britain are separate from the Gibraltar issue.

“Future negotiations on Gibraltar are separate negotiations. And that is what needs to be made clear,” Borrell said.

“Until it is clear … we will not be able to give our agreement,” he warned.

According to Article 184 of the draft divorce deal, “the EU and the United Kingdom shall make every effort, in good faith and with full respect for their respective legal systems, to adopt the measures necessary to negotiate rapidly the agreements governing their future relationship”.

These agreements will be negotiated between Brexit day on 29 March and December 2020 – extendable once – and will enter into force at the end of the period. 

But Spain wants to retain what it sees as its right to negotiate the future on Gibraltar with Britain on a bilateral basis, giving it an effective veto.

So, will this issue really derail the deal?

Well, although the legal service of the EU Council has tried to reassure Spain that the text does not preclude this, Madrid is seeking further clarification.

“Until we have the future declaration and we know what it says, whether we agree or not, we are not going to approve the withdrawal agreement either,” Borrell said.

Brexit British Prime Minister Theresa May Source: Matt Dunham via PA Images

In London, May’s spokesman said: “The draft withdrawal agreement agreed last week covers Gibraltar. 

“The PM has been clear that we will not exclude Gibraltar, and the other overseas territories and the crown dependencies from our negotiations on the future relationship. We will get a deal that works for the whole UK family.”

Gibraltar Chief Minister Fabian Picardo said the position adopted by Madrid “does little to build mutual confidence and trust going forward”.

Over the weekend, European diplomats said they did not expect Spain’s concerns to derail the agreement.

So, for now, it remains unclear how Spain will act, but a Spanish veto on the Brexit deal is very possible. 

With reporting by Sean Murray and © AFP 2018

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