What Brexit does and doesn't change about Britain, Spain and Gibraltar

Rows between Britain and Spain over the Rock aren't new. What will change is the EU's position. 

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Is it war after all? The row over Gibraltar has kicked up a notch after a Spanish destroyer entered Gibraltar’s territorial waters and was chased off by a British vessel.

The reality is that Spanish incursions into Gibraltar’s territorial waters – which Madrid does not recognise the existence of – are a regular feature of the Rock’s politics, which is why there is a permanent British naval presence there. Outside of Gibraltar, few Britons noticed or cared when a Spanish warship had to be escorted out of Gibraltarian waters by HMS Sabre in 2014.

But the difference now is that British and Spanish relations have an added excitement in much of the British press because for the first time, Spain’s sensitivities about Gibraltar are being catered to, rather than discreetly ignored by the rest of the European Union.

Although the words in the European Council’s draft response to Theresa May’s letter triggering Article 50 have no legal force and changes the status of the Rock in no way, shape or form, the reaction from Conservative grandees and the Brexit press has taken aback politicians, in London and abroad.

There will be plenty more of that to come. The Spanish government has, for a long time, seen Gibraltar as part of Spain and has wanted to add language that recognises their sensitivities as far as the Rock is concerned to EU communiques and treaties. But in the past, what has happened is that the other 26 members of the EU have looked at their feet while the United Kingdom has exercised its veto.

Now that Britain is outside the European Union, it is no longer around to veto those moves. Although the other 26 nations of the European Union care about as much about the fate of Gibraltar as the average Brit does about, say, the constitutional status of Martinique, a French island in the Lesser Antilles, no-one is going to sacrifice their own interests by doing a country outside of the bloc a favour when they could secure a favour from another member by agreeing to entirely meaningless language.

So expect much more of this sort of thing as far as Gibraltar is concerned in the future: meaningless nods to Spain’s interest in the Rock will likely be the exception, rather than the norm, after Brexit is over. 

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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