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Explainer: What's going on with Gibraltar and why are tempers flaring about it?

There had been suggestions made that the UK would be “prepared to go to war” over Gibraltar.

Image: Daniel Ochoa de Olza AP/PA Images

A TINY AREA at a southern tip of mainland Spain has been the focus of some contentious statements in recent days.

Former UK conservative party leader Lord Michael Howard has 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.

The issue has arisen again following the triggering of article 50 by the UK, that began its exit negotiations with the EU.

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

So, what’s going on with Gibraltar, and why are tempers flaring on it?

What is Gibraltar?

gibraltar mao Gibraltar is a tiny area near the southernmost tip of Spain. Source: Google Map

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

It has an area of 6.7km2. 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 a 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?

Referendum in Gibraltar Source: David Cheskin PA Archive/PA Images

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.

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’s changed?

Brexit Source: Ben Birchall PA Wire/PA Images

It could be summed up in a single word: Brexit.

Gibraltarians voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU by a margin of 96%.

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.

In a radio interview, acting foreign minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo said: “The Spanish flag on the Rock is much closer than before.

It’s a complete change of outlook that opens up new possibilities on Gibraltar not seen for a very long time.

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.

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.

Prepared for war?

Brexit Former Tory leader Lord Howard made the startling comments Source: Victoria Jones PA Wire/PA Images

The UK triggered article 50 last week, and the issue of Gibraltar has reared its head again.

Politicians past and present came out in force to talk tough on British support of the territory over the weekend.

Speaking to the BBC’s Sunday Politics show, Lord Howard drew a direct comparison between the Gibraltar situation and the Falklands War in the 1980s, between the UK and Argentina.

He said: “35 years ago this week another woman prime minister sent a task force half way across the world to protect another small group of British people against another Spanish-speaking country.

And I’m absolutely clear that our current woman prime minister will show the same resolve in relation to Gibraltar as her predecessor did.

Howard later said that he wasn’t directly advocating war with Spain, but said he couldn’t “see any harm in reminding them what kind of people we are”.

Also speaking to the BBC, current defence secretary Michael Fallon said that Britain would “look after” Gibraltar and is prepared to go “all the way” to do so.

Bargaining chip

So how likely is a war between Spain and the UK over Gibraltar?

Not very.

The UK hasn’t gone to war with a European state since World War II and, no matter how messy the divorce with the EU is, it is unlikely to cause an actual armed conflict.

But, all of this is a sign of the tough stance that Britain could take in the Brexit negotiations that are set to take place over the next couple of years.

Prime Minister Theresa May has told Chief Minister of the territory Fabian Picardo “we will never enter into arrangements under which the people of Gibraltar would pass under the sovereignty of another state against their freely and democratically expressed wishes”.

May has said that the territory would not be used as a bargaining chip in the Brexit negotiations.

Picardo seems very much on Britain’s side when it comes to the negotiations, despite Gibraltar voting overwhelmingly to stay in the EU.

Reacting to the fallout from Howard’s comments, Picardo told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland today that he couldn’t understand why the EU had included the sentence regarding Gibraltar in its draft strategy when all the territory does is “provide 12,000 jobs for people every day”.

He added that “given the way the EU has slapped us about the face on Friday”, he thinks that if another Brexit referendum were held in Gibraltar the EU “wouldn’t even get close to a majority if the vote happened today”.

“We think we can do very well in the Commonwealth, 90% of our trade is with the UK,” he said.

With the UK parliamentary report signalling that they would concede no ground on Gibraltar, such tough talking on the matter shows that the UK is ready and willing to adopt increasingly hostile rhetoric as it conducts its messy divorce from the EU.

The eurosceptic wing of the Tory party came out on the winning side of the referendum, and, while not necessarily meaning that it could lead to actual war, it is clear that they don’t want to give up any concessions to the EU on the matter whatsoever.

With the border between Northern Ireland another important flash point in the upcoming Brexit negotiations, the uncertainty around what will happen to the divide between two countries will persist for Gibraltar, and a lot closer to home, in the coming years.

Read: Former Tory leader inflames Brexit tensions with Spain over Gibraltar by bringing up the Falklands

Read: Brexit fallout – now Spain says it’s close to taking back Gibraltar

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About the author:

Sean Murray

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