Theresa May hasn't sold out Gibraltar. The Brexit vote did that

There is now no way forward - not even staying in the European Union - without negative implications for the people of Gibraltar. 

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman\'s Morning Call email.

Has Theresa May “caved” to the Spanish government over Gibraltar? The Spanish government, Labour MPs, pro-Brexit commentators and essentially everyone but Downing Street insists she has. Downing Street, of course, does not.

Who’s right? Well, a bit of both. The British government has accepted that the Rock will not be included in the territorial scope of any EU-UK agreement and will have to be negotiated separately with the Spanish government, which will be formally confirmed at Sunday’s summit.

But the reality is that all that has happened is that the political and legal reality has been written down. While the terms of the United Kingdom’s divorce from the European Union can be waved through with only a qualified majority of member states, the final free trade agreement – and indeed any future agreement that the United Kingdom strikes with the EU when it becomes a third country – will be subject to a veto from individual member states. Each and every one of those negotiations, the question of Gibraltar – whose inhabitants have twice voted by overwhelming margins to remain part of the UK – will be raised by the Spanish government, barring a sudden and unexpected sea change in Spanish politics.

That has consequences for anyone who wants the United Kingdom’s Leave vote to be overturned in the future. Any country either applying to join the European Union for the first time, or in the case of the United Kingdom, to rejoin, will again be subject to a veto from any member state, and there will, once again, be a price to be paid as far as Gibraltar’s constitutional status goes.

It may well be that even stopping Brexit before 29 March 2019 comes with a price as far as Gibraltar is concerned as it is not clear if the United Kingdom alone can revoke Article 50 or if it is subject to veto from other member states.

Bluntly, this is one area where question is open-and-shut: the only foolproof way to preserve the rights of self-determination of the people of Gibraltar was for the whole of the United Kingdom to do what 95.91 per cent of Gibraltarians did and vote to stay inside the European Union.

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.

Free trial CSS