Leader comment: Gibraltar crisis makes clear Brexit's challenges

Few of us expected anything other than a rocky road to follow this week's triggering of Article 50, but the pace of events which have followed a symbolic moment in British political history make clear that the path to sovereignty is beset with hurdles and pitfalls.

The European Union referendum campaign inflamed age old tensions surrounding Britain’s place in Europe, but now that the process of Brexit has begun in earnest, it is one of the most long-standing grievances that has come to dominate the debate.

The question of Gibraltar is one which Britain and Spain have wrestled with for centuries. Spain has a long-standing territorial claim on that which has been held by the UK since 1713, and which currently has the status of British Overseas Territory.

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Over the years, there has been discord and anger between the two countries, but Britain’s decision to disentangle itself from the EU has given the issue an added urgency.

Guidelines published by Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, appear to indicate that after Brexit, no agreement between the UK and the EU will apply to Gibraltar, unless Madrid gives its agreement.

The very suggestion Spain might have a say over the status of the self-governing territory will be grave news to its 30,000 inhabitants. They voted by an overwhelming margin of 96 per cent to 4 per cent to remain in the EU last June, while in 2002, its residents voted by 99 per cent to 1 per cent to reject the concept of dual sovereignty.

The EC guidelines potentially change all that. In a single paragraph of Mr Tusk’s nine-page document, the guidelines state: “After the United Kingdom leaves the Union, no agreement between the EU and the United Kingdom may apply to the territory of Gibraltar without the agreement between the Kingdom of Spain and the United Kingdom.”

It may well be the case that the proposal is, in effect, a retaliation for Prime Minister Theresa May’s threat that European will a poorer – and more dangerous – place without being able to depend on the UK’s considerable security apparatus. That was a crass and ill-conceived gambit on the part of Downing Street, which may well turn out to be the first pitch in a game of hardball.

It is impossible to be certain, but the EC’s talk over Gibraltar could be a similar warning shot that will not be acted upon. The UK government, at least, cannot afford to be complacent and simply assume that is the case. It may seem preposterous to some that the fate of Gibraltar could have a seismic impact on the UK’s future, but that is where we are. Ms May must carefully consider how to respond.

Inevitably, there will have to be compromise, although that is a dangerous prospect for a government intent on keeping together its domestic union. After all, if it seeks to make special arrangements for Gibraltar as part of the Brexit process, many in Scotland would, quite reasonably, demand to follow the precedent. Tough times lie ahead, and at the end, what we know as Britain could look like a very different place.