Leader: Don't let Gibraltar descend into sabre rattling

Of all the unlikely issues to cloud the Brexit negotiations after only a week, the fate of Gibraltar has been catapulted to the fore.

Spain, which has long had territorial claims on the British Crown dependency, has staked its opposition to Gibraltar becoming part of the UK’s secession from the EU. Now, in a move that makes UK-Spanish relations even more fraught, Spain’s foreign minister Alfonso Dastis has said his country would not automatically veto an attempt by an independent Scotland to join the EU.

A shrewd move on the geo-political chess board? Or a piece of opportunistic mischief-making? This apparent change of position by a Spanish government anxious not to create anything that could be seen as a precedent for Spain’s own Catalan independence movement will doubtless be warmly welcomed by the SNP. The prospect that Spain might no longer block SNP ambitions to lead an independent Scotland back into the EU can only strengthen its persistent calls for a second independence referendum.

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Meanwhile, former Conservative leader Michael Howard has lost no time to compare in public the situation over Gibraltar to that of the Falkland Islands, hinting that Prime Minister Theresa May would be ready to go to war over the sovereignty of Gibraltar.

Thus, in barely a week, an issue that barely figured in all the apprehensions over Brexit ahead of the activation of Article 50, has moved from sharp exchanges to sabre rattling.

Comparisons with the Falklands are not at all helpful. It may be high politicking for the Spanish government to use Brexit as an excuse to undo the 300 year-old Treaty of Utrecht. But Spain has not invaded Gibraltar; the Spanish government has said it remains opposed to Scottish independence - the foreign minister’s statements were qualified to that effect; and as yet the two parties know little as yet about what a Brexit settlement would entail. For a senior UK political figure to have spoken as he did can only harden attitudes.

The issue of Gibraltar was raised in the draft EU negotiating guidelines circulated by European Council president Donald Tusk, which indicated Madrid would be given a veto over the Rock’s participation in a future deal. Prime Minister Theresa May has given assurances to Gibraltar’s leader Fabian Picardo that the UK remained “absolutely dedicated to working with Gibraltar for the best possible outcome on Brexit” and he in turn has insisted that any future UK-EU trade deal must apply to Gibraltar.

It should not be forgotten that the people of Gibraltar have expressed overwhelming support for remaining in the UK and their wishes should not be lost.

The most sensible way forward would surely now be for UK politicians to desist from references to the Falklands and for negotiations to proceed to secure a practical and mutually satisfactory set of agreements on customs arrangements, border procedures and the movement of people.