British and Spanish monkeys fight over Gibraltar and slave rights
Former Tory party leader Lord Howard has assured the people of Gibraltar that Theresa May would show the same “resolve” as Mrs Thatcher did over the 1982 Falklands Conflict. Why is Howard saying the country is prepared to go to war with Spain over The Rock, a British territory? Because the Spanish worked a clause into draft EU negotiations giving them a veto in any Brexit deal and Gibraltar is ours.
Talking to Sky News, Howard recalled when “another woman prime minister sent a taskforce halfway across the world to protect another small group of British people against another Spanish-speaking country. And I’m absolutely clear that our current woman prime minister will show the same resolve in relation to Gibraltar as her predecessor did.”
It is fighting talk. But is Howard’s jingoism wrong? Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry says it is. “Inflammatory comments like those by Michael Howard will not help Britain get what it needs from these difficult Brexit negotiations,” she says. Lib Dem leader Tim Farron picked up the smell of traditional Tory nationalism and British imperialism. “In only a few days the Conservative right are turning long-term allies into potential enemies,” he said. “I hope this isn’t a sign of the government’s approach to the long negotiations to come. Brexiteers have gone from cheering to sabre-rattling for war in four days, it is absolutely ludicrous.”
Howard later told Channel 4 News: “I think it was ill-advised of the EU to insert that reference to Gibraltar in their draft guidelines. Since they have done it, I can see no harm of reminding them of what sort of people we are.”
And aren’t the Spanish to blame for any looming row? Gibraltar was ceded to Britain in perpetuity when Spain signed the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, after an Anglo-Dutch naval force captured it in August 1704 as part of the War of the Spanish Succession. That was an international fight involving Spain, France, Great Britain and their allies to work out which of them was the ultimate colonial power. Britain got Gibraltar and, among other things, the rights to slave trading in Spain’s American colonies. Since then The Rock has endured 15 sieges by Spain. But now the fight is over fishing rights, cheap ciggies and The Rock’s 10% corporation tax, which Madrid sees as unfair competition.
In 2013, Boris Johnson, the then London mayor and now Foreign Secretary, saw Spanish newspapers report that Spain was seeking a “united front” with Argentina against Britain, joining their respective claims to Gibraltar and the Falklands. “HMS Illustrious is about to bristle into view on the southern coast of Spain, complete with thousands of Royal Marines and other elite commando units,” guffed Johnson. “I hope that one way or another we will shortly prise Spanish hands off the throat of our colony.”
The issue is further complicated by Madrid’s claims to Ceuta and Melilla – two Moroccan ports across the water from Gibraltar – as its own. There is no treaty ceding ownership of those territories – nor the Islas Chafarinas, Perejil, Penon de Alhucemas and Penon de Velez de la Gomera, which all lie in Moroccan waters.
And Gibraltarians want to be British. Referendums in 1967 and 2002 resulted in Gibraltarians rejecting moves for Spanish sovereignty. If the Spanish claim The Rock, they become an occupying power. And surely ceding Gibraltar would bring the Falklands into play.
Lastly, 96% of the Rock’s 30,000 inhabitants endorsed the EU in the referendum last June. But that doesn’t mean they want to be ruled by Spain.
Gibraltar’s chief minister Fabian Picardo tells media: “The prime minister said we 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 we ever enter into a process of sovereignty negotiations with which Gibraltar is not content. The prime minister said we remain absolutely dedicated to working with Gibraltar for the best possible outcome on Brexit and will continue to involve them fully in the process.”
Gibraltarians see themselves as British. They want to remain under British control.
But times change. Is The Rock, looming by the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea, as strategically important as it once was? Margaret Thatcher was prepared to enter into talks over Gibraltar. No shots fired. The future would be sorted out by lawyers and bureaucrats.
Can a backroom deal be done now after Brexit? If it can’t, is war with a key ally really on the cards? The belligerent rhetoric is painful stuff.
Maybe we should let those other Gibraltarians decide The Rock’s fate? The story goes than the British will leave Gibraltar when the last of its irritating Barbary Macaques dies. Wouldn’t it be apt if animal rights becomes the biggest issue in a modern European row. It’s the kind of thing we get excited about these days.