With hard-right politicians in Spain talking about fighting to reclaim Gibraltar, the UK needs to adopt a pragmatic, not an emotional, stance on the issue and work with the Spanish government, writes Alastair Stewart.
It’s a curious time for EasyJet to announce new flights to Gibraltar from Edinburgh in 2020. It’s droll, to be sure, given that Gibraltar – more so than Northern Ireland – will be a hotspot for the potentially violent consequences of Brexit.
Gibraltar voted strongly to remain in the European Union – 95.91 per cent – during the 2016 referendum. History seldom yields to politics and both Spain and Britain are struggling with increasingly hard-right, reactionary elements.
The Vox party is exceptionally hostile to immigrants in Spain and has said they will fight to reclaim Gibraltar. The Tories have predicated their Brexit-messaging on taking back sovereignty of the United Kingdom and that presumably means defending its territory.
While the Spanish claim it, Gibraltar is an autonomous community with control over its economy, taxation, tourism, government and culture, with no direct influence from the UK Government.
Controlled by the UK since 1713, it sits in irony opposite Ceuta, a Spanish city across the Strait of Gibraltar on the coast of North Africa. Morocco claims that the city is theirs.
Emotion trumps pragmatism
The 34,500 people who live in Gibraltar cannot vote in UK general elections. But in 1967, there was a referendum asking Gibraltarians whether they wished to stay British and 99.64 per cent said they did as they did again in 2002 when the result of another referendum with 98.48 per cent.
The territory is subject to incendiary rhetoric from the Spanish and British. More often than not, emotion trumps pragmatic decision-making.
Boris Johnson has included Gibraltar in his national defence program; the Labour party has pledged to defend its sovereignty, and the Liberal Democrats have championed its right to remain in Europe.
Britain launched a process of mass decolonisation from 1947 onwards under successive prime ministers, but it never really came to terms with the overnight loss of its empire.
The cost of protecting Gibraltar is reasonable enough – at around £55 million a year (although London has repeatedly refused to confirm the true price) – but it has a higher emotional value.
Tinderbox of ill-will
Alongside the Falkland Islands and other territories, it is a visceral symbols of what’s left after the Hong Kong handover in 1997.
With some aptness, Gibraltar has a very 1990s British aesthetic, but thousands cross the 1.2km border with the Spanish town of La Línea de la Concepción every day.
It’s a real place that will be subject to the tinderbox of ill-will that Brexit is likely to fan between Spain and the UK.
No one is suggesting that we cede Gibraltar to the Spanish. Instead, it should be seriously discussed how territorial protection is managed in a way that reflects the wishes of its population but also the realities of Brexit. How else can reactionary elements be stopped from hijacking the issue?
The Spanish and British governments are as guilty as one another for hanging onto imperial posterity. But no one can pretend that everything is okay with Gibraltar, that Brexit will be a smooth ride. For all the talk of claiming sovereignty, it’s never been more important to work in tandem with our partners in Europe – and Gibraltar is ground zero.
Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer and public affairs consultant. He regularly writes about politics and history with a particular interest in nationalism, and the life of Sir Winston Churchill. Read more from Alastair at www.agjstewart.com and follow him on Twitter @agjstewart