We can all agree that the negotiations over the UK’s departure from the European Union have been proving messy: where the responsibility for this should rest is a matter of greater dispute. But amidst the bad news, and the noisy blame-mongering, you may have missed some good news. There has been agreement that Gibraltar’s status and future well-being should not be put under threat.
The Daily Telegraph reports:
“Spain has signalled it will not veto any final Brexit deal after progress was made in negotiations between Madrid and London over Gibraltar. The European Union gave Spain the power to block the Brexit withdrawal agreement in March. Since then talks have been held between the two countries over what will happen to the Rock after Brexit. Spain has long contested the sovereignty of Gibraltar, which it views as a British colony, but that issue has not featured in the negotiations.”
Pedro Sánchez, the Spanish Prime Minister, said that Spain has dropped its demand for joint management of Gibraltar’s airport. He said:
“The Gibraltar protocol is resolved, it’s been closed with the British Government. Given what we want above all is an agreement and to give stability to the people, elements where it is evident we are light years away from reaching an agreement with United Kingdom, like the shared use of the airport or [Spain’s] sovereignty over the Rock have been left out.”
Good news is pretty much no news. But the comparison with Northern Ireland is striking. Imagine if the Irish Government had been as accommodating as the Spanish one? Perhaps the Gibraltar experience shows the benefit of the UK taking a very clear and firm stance and sticking to it. Spain ceded Gibraltar to the U.K. “in perpetuity” in 1713. In 2002, the residents held a vote on Spain’s proposal for joint sovereignty – it was rejected by 17,900 to 187. In that context, any concessions to Spanish opportunism would have been pretty outrageous.
Yet in the EU Referendum in 2016 the Remain Campaign made a great effort to highlight the perceived threat to the Rock that a Brexit vote would represent. The message was certainly taken seriously on Gibraltar itself. Its residents voted Remain by 95.1 per cent to 4.1 per cent. These are people so fiercely patriotic that they are known as “more British than the British.”
Was the supposed threat to Gibraltar just another case of “Project Fear” – albeit an exceptionally effective example? Perhaps. But older residents would point out that the stress and anxiety when Franco closed the border in 1969 was real enough. And in the immediate aftermath of the referendum two years ago Spain did demand “joint control”. So the vote to Remain to avoid “a leap in the dark” was understandable.
David Cameron went to Gibraltar, though his visit was cut short by the murder of Jo Cox. But Cameron did tell the Gibraltarians that EU membership was “so crucial to your continued economic success, security and prosperity” and that “I believe we’ll be stronger, we’ll be safer, we’ll be better off if we stay”.
He was right about the economic success. Yet it is just that success which also gives Spain an economic motive not to cause disruption. As Laveen Ladharam has written:
“Simply put, Gibraltar is a huge economic boon to southern Spain. The territory employs around 10,000 people living in Spain, mainly service sector workers. But there are also many young professionals: accountants, teachers and lawyers. These people bring nearly €100 million into Spain every year. Gibraltar also buys over £380 million in services from Spain and the quirky airport ensures thousands of British tourists have another way of getting to southern Spain.”
Keeping open the land frontier between Gibraltar and Spain at La Línea is in everyone’s interests. So Spain will not revert to Franco’s policy – which, of course, failed to break the will of the people of Gibraltar. So on the island of Ireland, as with Spain, let us hope that there is agreement to allow life to continue as before, and that this story too has a happy ending.