​​​​​Posted 2nd April 2017

Between a Rock and a hard place 

We can never know what went through the minds of the victors and vanquished as they discussed the spoils of war. When Spain ceded Gibraltar, along with Minorca, to Great Britain under the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, thereby ending the War of the Spanish Succession (the one that brought us Blenheim Palace - a gift from a grateful nation to the unstoppably victorious Duke of Marlborough - and, eventually, Winston Churchill), there was no mention of a time limit. As was the unwritten convention over centuries of European wars, a territory acquired and formally signed over under settlement remained the possession of the gaining power in perpetuity or until it was retaken and /or surrendered, either to its original owner or to another country. Assisted by France, Spain did recapture Minorca 69 years later, a victory formalised under treaty in 1783, but not so Gibraltar, which survived a siege of over three and a half years to remain British.

[As a footnote on Minorca, its temporary loss to the French, in a conflict some 15 years earlier (it was to become a habit) so incensed the British (a process somewhat slower than for modern day netizens) and so embarrassed the government that the unfortunate but responsible Admiral Byng was tried for negligence and shot on the quarterdeck of his own ship in Portsmouth harbour, thereby inspiring Voltaire to coin the phrase “pour encourager les autres”.]

In the 304 years that have passed, Gibraltar's relationship with Great Britain has certainly stood the test of time. The inhabitants of the ‘Rock' regard themselves as British with a patriotism often lacking amongst inhabitants of mainland Britain and not only have no desire to be absorbed by Spain, they have no intention of allowing that to happen - ever. Spain has not been happy about this but has been obliged to accept the strongly expressed will of the majority..

Knowing the British position on Gibraltar and the feelings of its population, it was therefore a cynical manoeuvre by the EU to include in their draft Guidelines for a ‘Brexit’ agreement the stipulation of a  bilateral agreement with Spain about Gibraltar’s future. Appearing to be something of ambush, it is not untypical of attempts by EU officials, since before the Referendum, to exacerbate the tensions between the EU and the United Kingdom. One wonders why would they even want to do that. Score-settling comes to mind. For decades, the UK has been a highly vocal critic of the EU, at times making life extremely uncomfortable both for those trying to run the Club and for other members. Whilst not all critics have been as strident as Margaret Thatcher, the memory is long and the sting still felt. In other words, we have serially failed to play nice and ‘they’ have used the post-Referendum situation to gang up on us in the playground; with most of our friends in that same gang, there are few if any prepared to support us. Spain has already suggested it would expect other members to be on its side. What that might mean when it comes to attempting to reach a 'Brexit' Agreement with the EU is for conjecture at this early stage but talk of a potential veto over Gibraltar is concerning to say the least. By creating this complication, the EU is open to accusations of showing its true colours, thereby reinforcing the predispositions of ‘Leave’ supporters, if that were possible.

Despite subsequent placatory noises from Madrid, the likelihood exists that the reference wouldn't be in the draft document unless some mischief was afoot. If it were to remain in the final version, we shall know there is serious intent behind it.

On the 35th anniversary of another nation’s attempt to wrest The Falklands from the UK, against the wishes of its inhabitants, it is worth remembering the lengths to which The UK was determined to go to protect sovereign territory. How much less likely is Theresa May to compromise on the the joint interests of territory much closer to home and whose strategic importance is incalculably greater? As Spain should realise by now - they have only to consider Catalonia and the Basque Country - a sense of identity and belonging isn’t always about geography. Much as they might wish to salvage a modicum of perceived national pride by thwarting Gibraltarians and the UK economically, they would risk being judged as petty and ignoble. It really is time for them to let go.

Nigel Austin 

author of The Robin Gibson series