Blog: The EU’s quiet coup in Gibraltar – The New European

There are few greater symbols of Britain’s standing in the world than Gibraltar. But, as MARK MARDELL explains, as the UK moves away from the EU the Rock is gravitating dramatically into its sphere.

A British warship, the HMS Trent, has arrived at her new permanent base, Gibraltar, Britain’s last remaining European overseas territory. According to her captain, the crew are excited to forge a close relationship with the Rock in the years ahead.

For the hyper patriotic tabloids, which regularly work themselves into a frenzy by imagining conflict with Spain over the status of the Rock, it is not only exciting but a delight and a reassurance.

It wasn’t long ago that former Conservative leader Michael Howard drew a direct parallel with the Falkland’s War and suggested a taskforce could be sent to sail around to show the Spanish who’s boss.

In fact, rather than fantasy, HMS Trent’s mission is to train her 30mm gun on pirates off the North African coast, not on pretend Spanish invaders. The Spanish government have been specifically reassured the vessel won’t actually patrol these particular coastal waters.

This hardly matters: for some Gibraltar is a symbol of British greatness and martial ardour rather than practical diplomacy. The legend goes while the barbary apes remain on the Rock it will remain British. And while Gibraltar remains British those insecure about our rightful place in the world are reassured.

Brexit has provided a fresh opportunity for outbursts of angst about who really has the right to this prime real estate in the Mediterranean, and naval nostalgia plays a part.

It was after all British and Dutch marines, backed by 15,000 cannons who captured it in the first place in 1704, having failed to take Barcelona and worrying Cadiz was too tough a nut to crack.

But Brexit also means Gibraltar’s status is in flux, with a new treaty between the UK and the EU in the pipeline. For their part Gibraltar, the UK and Spain agreed at the end of last year the outline of what they want in a framework document. The EU as a whole has yet to even start negotiations.

There is a paradox here. The way things are heading two apparently contradictory outcomes are likely. Britain’s sovereignty over the Rock will be more secure than in the past, while Gibraltar’s relationship with the EU will become much closer than ever before.

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Gibraltar has long been an important naval base so spotting a warship isn’t anything out of the ordinary, but another rarer sighting is of more importance.

Towards the end of March, Dominic Raab became the first British foreign secretary to visit since Boris Johnson went there in 2016. Raab was there for a session of the joint ministerial council to firm up the agreement. It was a rather self-congratulatory affair. Gibraltar’s chief minister Fabian Picardo said the support they had received over Covid showed ‘how lucky they were to be British”. Fully vaccinated Gib is one of the few places in Europe that British tourists may be allowed to visit this summer.

The foreign secretary declared in a statement that “Gibraltar’s British identity, and the United Kingdom’s sovereignty, must be preserved” and reiterated “the UK’s longstanding commitment that it 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. Nor will it enter into a process of sovereignty negotiations with which Gibraltar is not content”.

The foreign secretary can afford to be strident: the Spanish government explicitly took the issue of sovereignty off the table in the December negotiations, to the dismay of some in Spain. Indeed opposition parties like the far-right Vox, call it a betrayal. So the Union flag will continue to flutter over the two and half square miles of limestone outcropping at the tip of Spain.

The chief minister is clearly delighted and tells me: “The equilibrium that we have managed to find in is one that had evaded us for generations — what we need to do now is to give to give longevity and certainty by setting it out in a treaty.”

But the outline agreement is also an effective lesson on the limits of sovereignty in the real world. Everything will change, and only one great power will hugely increase its influence in this tiny territory, without deploying a single marine, let alone firing any cannons. That power is the EU. The fallout from Brexit is highly likely to diminish the UK’s sway in its sole remaining possession in the heart of Europe.

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Boris Johnson will never concede that ‘Gibraltar’ is written on his heart, as Queen Mary claimed the lost territory of Calais would be engraved on hers, but the coming negotiations are unlikely to burnish the claims of Britain as an ever-increasing global power. Here’s why.

Gibraltar was among the prizes awarded to Great Britain in 1713 in the Treaty of Utrecht, that bold attempt to tie up the many messy loose ends after the long years of the War of Spanish Succession.

It stated that “the town, castle and fortifications were to be held and enjoyed for ever without any exception or impediment whatsoever” by the British. The treaty was of immense geopolitical importance, a signal that this newly created nation, the Kingdom of Great Britain, just six years old, was the coming force in a new age, a European power extending its influence far beyond the continent. The British also won chunks of Canada off the French and took from the Spanish the Asiento – a monopoly on selling slaves to the New World.

The historian G. M. Trevelyan wrote that the treaty marked a shift in world power, solidifying “the maritime, commercial and financial supremacy of Great Britain”.

It also set in stone the British strategy of the balance of powers, where, by careful manipulation from across the channel, no single power was allowed to dominate the continent. No wonder Gibraltar evokes such passions and has become such an evergreen symbol of British might.

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The new treaty, due to be signed by the end of June may also be a watershed moment, a mirror image of Utrecht – marking Britain’s diminished influence in Europe without any greater global reach than before. The outline of a likely future already exists.

While the UK did a Brexit deal on Christmas Eve it took until the early hours of New Year’s Eve for Spain, the UK and Gibraltar to come to an agreement after what chief minister Picardo described as the “most hectic, most difficult – intensely political” negotiations he has ever known. If implemented, it would mean getting rid of the existing physical border between Spain and the Rock, making life easier for the 10,000 workers who cross daily, and who currently must face work permit checks at the barrier every time.

This would be a big change. My first ever foreign assignment, for IRN, was in 1985 covering the full opening of the border which had been shut by Franco 15 years earlier and opened solely for Spanish pedestrians in 1982. Amid the midnight celebrations most people I spoke to on both sides of the border were delighted – and worried about sovereignty.

Fascism had ended with Franco’s death in 1975 and this opening up was a direct result of Spain’s application to become a member of the European Community.

Naturally they wanted to smooth things over with the UK, an existing member state. The deal was done by foreign secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe and the Spanish socialist government at a European summit.

As trade barriers are going up between the UK and the EU, this new plan is a serious move in the opposite direction. The Treaty of Brussels, or whatever it is eventually called, won’t replace the Treaty of Utrecht, but it will dim the UK’s sovereign role.

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Gibraltar, as seen from above, with Spain lying beyond

– Credit: Getty Images/EyeEm

Gibraltar has long had a unique status – it was the only British Overseas Territory which was a member of the EU, joining along with the UK in 1972. It was even considered part of South West England, at least for the purposes of European elections. Some Tory MPs it now want it to be given its own MP and seat in the House of Commons.

But the anomalies are more profound than this. Unlike the UK it was never a member of the customs union or the common agricultural policy. But like Britain pre-Brexit, it opted out of one of the EU’s most important policies

The border free area, known as ‘Schengen’ after the town in Luxembourg where the agreement was original signed, is of huge importance to the EU – both a central symbol of its ambition of ‘ever closer union’ and a very practical advantage to many of its citizens.

Because Gibraltar was not part of this, the border between the Rock and Spain – ‘the fence’ as it is known locally – is policed by both the Spanish Civil Guard and Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise. Traveling into Gib by sea or air checks are at the moment carried out by HM Customs and Gibraltar’s own border agency, wearing uniforms very like British police officers.

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This is likely to change radically. The plan is that Gibraltar’s port and airport become the new frontier of Schengen. Those arriving from the UK will have their documents checked; those coming from one of the 22 EU/Schengen countries won’t. Rubbing in the point, the men and women checking the documents of British visitors will be members of the EU’s border guard, Frontex. There’s a row brewing over whether Gibraltar will become a part of Schengen or be merely connected to it, but the direction of travel is clear enough.

The joint statement attempts to sound tough stating that ‘a joint operation’ with Frontex will only initially last for four years, and will stop if Spain, the UK or Gibraltar don’t like the way it is working.

You would have thought that checks of their beloved blue passports might be enough to give Brexiteers apoplexy – but it doesn’t end there. In this topsy turvy world while the UK has now left the customs union, Gibraltar will join it for the very first time.

The new closer relationship with the EU isn’t likely to end there – it is almost inevitable that its VAT regime and trade regulations will be extended to the Rock for the first time. 

Gibraltar’s chief minister Picardo notes the irony that the Rock is likely to have a closer relationship with the EU than it ever did during the 48 years when it, and the UK, were members of the club. He tells me: “Ironically post Brexit we and the region around us may enjoy greater certainty about the fluidity of goods and people but I don’t think that changes what you might call our spiritual identity.”

Although Spain has signed up to the proposed plan, the whole EU isn’t yet formally involved. The treaty is meant to be done and dusted by the end of June but this seems unlikely – the EU’s rather frosty statement merely points out “the relevant services in the Commission are currently examining the request in view of proposing the next steps in line with the Commission Declaration on possible Future Arrangements between the Union and the UK in respect of Gibraltar”.

If they are in no rush, the UK has to put up with it. The foreign secretary has suggested getting it right is more important than sticking to a timetable, so he will be flexible.

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There’s a warning from history – the Treaty of Utrecht was only partially agreed in 1713 – it took another two years to be completed. More worrying than a slipping time table is what might go wrong.

In the current atmosphere even the easy things are likely to prove difficult. Some assumed with Brexit a reality and the basic deal done the hard words would be forgotten and a new business like relationship would prevail. The reverse appears to be true – predictably on both sides of the relationship there’s an assumption of antagonism.

From the suspension of the Northern Ireland protocol and the refusal to grant the EU ambassador full diplomatic rights, to the appointment of Lord Frost to the cabinet, through the new low of the unseemly row over vaccines, the atmosphere has got steadily worse. Asked about this new potential for friction by Gibraltarian journalists Raab seemed sanguine – he said the stumbling blocks had been mostly dealt with in the framework agreement. Still, there’s more potential for take than give – privately everyone involved recognises the fraught relationship between the UK and the EU will make a difficult job harder still. But when I ask the chief minister if he is worried, he is diplomatic: “Given how Gibraltar and Spain have unfortunately caused difficulties for Brussels in the past I’m sure they won’t want to waste the opportunity, where there is an agreement between us, to clinch that in treaty form.”

He adds: “The issues that Brexit has made us grapple with have been as difficult as we imagined at the time of the vote but we can see an opportunity for Gibraltar to flourish despite our departure from the European Union – I will work very hard to make the Brexit I didn’t want, the success those who did, highlighted it might be.”

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The only other place under British rule to share a land border with an EU country is of course Northern Ireland where history makes the issue of borders even more fraught. It is leaving the customs union while the neighbouring EU member, the Republic of Ireland naturally stays in (neither have ever been part of Schengen). With the great fear that a hard border – with customs checks and the like – could lead to political violence, the solution, currently causing a huge row, is the awkward notion of customs check’s ‘in the Irish Sea’, in other words between one part of the UK and another.

Would the planned Gib deal be another answer? Hardly. The big difference is that Gibraltar’s citizens do at least seem to share a common vision – while almost 96% voted to remain in the EU, in 2002 99% also voted to stay exclusively British. The duality of what is on offer for the Rock would clearly divide in Northern Ireland, by reinforcing its separateness from Great Britain, and underscoring its closeness to Ireland.

The risks for Gibraltar are obviously less serious even if it all goes wrong.

But it is a long time since the Rock has been about hard power and practical advantage – it’s potency lies what it stands for – a hollow drum to beat to rally the troops. This is the price of Brexit, the British holding fast to their pride in possession, content to pay the price of the EU extending the reach of one of its most precious policies –the freedom of movement within its borders.

When ever the new treaty is signed don’t expect a future Trevelyan to suggest it cements “the maritime, commercial and financial supremacy of Great Britain” in the post Brexit world.

What do you think? Have your say on this and more by emailing letters@theneweuropean.co.uk

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