Brexit: What Gibraltar means for the UK and Scotland

The European parliamentary constituency of the South-West England is curiously massive, stretching well over a thousand miles.
Gibraltar. Picture: TSPLGibraltar. Picture: TSPL
Gibraltar. Picture: TSPL

That is because those MEPs who represent areas like Lands End and Cornwall also represent the tiny nation of Gibraltar.

In 2002, residents of Gibraltar were asked in a referendum “Do you approve of the principle that Britain and Spain should share sovereignty over Gibraltar?”

Close to 99% of the 18,000 people who voted said No.

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A court challenge in 2006 led to the inclusion of Gibraltar in the European elections for the first time,

But that issue of sovereignty is set to rear its ugly head as Britain prepares to leave the European Union, making Gibraltar as important to British political life perhaps more than at any time since three IRA members were killed on the island 29 years ago.

Here are just some of the ways the 30,000 people living in Gibraltar could become massive factors in the complex process of Britain extricating itself from the other 27 nations of the EU.

A one-way dispute

The issue of Gibraltar left the member states of the European Union in a tricky position, given two of their number both claimed one territory.

Spain is reluctant to see any move to include Gibraltar in supra-national organisations, even objecting to the ascension of the Gibraltan national football team to UEFA.

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With both sides of the Gibraltar debate in the EU, there was little that the Union could do to mediate or even move forward on the issue.

Now, a key clause in the European Council response to Article 50 has given warning that the EU is minded to side with Spain regarding ‘The Rock’. A leaked draft of that said that no agreement on the EU’s future relationship with the UK would apply to Gibraltar without the express consent of the Government in Madrid.

While counted as part of the South-West England constituency, Gibraltar’s result was noted in the Brexit referendum, with a staggering 96% of voters in favour of Remain.

What that could mean

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It could mean that the pro-Remain voters on the island could conceivably be allowed to remain in the EU, but it would appear that is only possible if they consent to a joint-governance agreement with the UK and Spain.

Many thousands commute between Gibraltar (where Britain’s biggest bookmakers are based for tax and regulatory reasons) and Spain and border controls could be disastrous for the local economy.

Theresa May’s failure to mention the territory specifically in her letter triggering Article 50 has been taken as a sign in Madrid that she is willing to make concessions to Spain.

Similarly to the potential return of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, locals and politicians realise that EU rules mandate some kind of border controls between member states and other countries.

Gibraltar, which also relies on tourism, could even have significant issues to deal with regarding travel to their peninsula.

With over 700,000 Britons in Spain, they too could become bargaining chips as the diplomatic battle rages on.

Scotland’s concern

While they are on record as supporting the right of the people of Gibraltar to remain part of Britain, the strong words of the EU could be music to the ears of the SNP.

The EU’s insistence that the new arrangements won’t apply to Gibraltar unless Spain agrees to it is a tacit admission from Brussels that different territories of the UK can have different deals.

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That has been the mantra of the SNP since the Brexit vote, and they believe that Scotland can have a separate deal that reflects the desire of the voters of Scotland to remain in the UK.

A bespoke deal has been dismissed by the British Government, but if the Gibraltar clause remains in the final EU negotiation document then Nicola Sturgeon will consider her hand strengthened.

While Scotland isn’t Gibraltar, and we are a nation not a territory, there is no doubt that the notion that all parts of Britain must have one deal is undermined by the EU’s position.

With Gibraltar, Northern Ireland, and now Scotland pushing for opt-outs from the UK-EU deal, Theresa May doesn’t have her problems to seek as one constitutional crisis seems to spawn another.