In the Brexit Divorce, Who Takes Custody of Little Gibraltar?

With some Britons blustering about war, Europe is looking for more subtle means to take back The Rock.

Jon Nazca / Reuters

ROME — Breaking up is hard to do, especially when it’s the uncoupling of the European Union and the United Kingdom. But while most of the “who gets what” division of property has been easy so far (you keep the haggis, we’ll keep the Champagne), there is one particular nugget that is starting to raise hackles: The Rock, also known as the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar.

The U.K. has had territorial control over Gibraltar, which sits off the southwestern coast of Spain at the strategic entrance of the Mediterranean, since 1713. Britons have essentially been fighting with the European continent about its status for at least that long. More recently, the Spanish government threatened to impose border-crossing fees and control airspace to try to rein in those who live and pay taxes on the British island but work in Spain. Gibraltar dropped 70 massive blocks of concrete in prime Spanish fishing waters nearby as retaliation.

Since Prime Minister Theresa May pulled the trigger on Brexit last week, it has become increasingly clear that Gibraltar and its population of 30,000 is seen by Europe as a negotiating point, and the U.K. suddenly is waxing nostalgic for the days when Britannia ruled the waves.

As the EU and U.K. prepare their negotiation terms, Europe wants to ensure that Spain will get veto power over any deals with the U.K. that include Gibraltar.

The U.K. says “no.” And so do the Gibraltarians, who say they want to stay sovereign and British. The Rock’s chief minister, Fabian Picardo, said they wouldn’t be used as a bargaining chip, accusing European Council President Donald Tusk of treating them like “the kids” in a separation agreement.

“Mr. Tusk, who has been given to using the analogies of the divorce and divorce petition, is behaving like a cuckolded husband who is taking it out on the children,” Picardo said, according to the Gibraltar Chronicle newspaper.

“We are not going to be a chip and we are not going to be a victim of Brexit as we are not the culprits of Brexit: We voted to stay in the European Union. So, taking it out on us is to allow Spain to behave in the manner of the bully.”

Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis accused Gibraltar and London of blowing things out of proportion. “The Spanish government is a little surprised by the tone of comments coming out of Britain, a country known for its composure,” Dastis told reporters Monday. “I think some people in the U.K. are losing their temper but there’s no need for that.”

Lord Howard, a former Tory leader, said Sunday that the U.K. would “go to war” to defend Gibraltar, likening May’s resolve to that of Margaret Thatcher during the Falklands War in 1982, when the U.K. reasserted its control in an armed conflict after Argentina occupied the island territory. Nearly 1,000 Argentine and British military personnel died in the 10-week battle.

James Gray, a Conservative member of the House of Commons Defense Select Committee, told The Daily Beast he didn’t think the Falklands War would repeat itself. “If the Moroccans go bonkers and start to invade Gibraltar—or if the Americans do, or the Chinese do—then of course we will take the necessary steps to protect our protectorate,” he said. “And that is perfectly sensible, we’ve always made that plain to the Spaniards and anybody else. We haven’t lost our cool over it—I think we Brits are pretty cool by comparison with the hot-blooded Spanish.”

Still, if Spain intervenes in the upcoming two-year Brexit negotiation period, it could make life on Gibraltar quite miserable, especially if it imposes tariffs on air travel and borders.

Dai Havard, the former chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group for the Army, told The Daily Beast that the British government was using the military and stirring up a dispute with Spain to distract voters from the real problems of the “Brexit bullshit.”

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“It’s a hyperbolic and hysterical response,” he said. “What the military would say is: ‘Yes, Gibraltar is obviously vital as a base from which we can operate, but we don’t want to be used as a political football.’ What is being argued by politicians is the terms on which that continues. The question of whether we are having ‘Falklands II’ to protect the self-determined rights of the Gilbraltarians, that’s a long way off.”

Havard suggested that Lord Howard had been sent out to re-frame the debate, which has seen critics question the government’s approach to the negotiations.

“I wonder who put him out there to invoke the spirit of Thatcher and all the rest of it? It’s jingoistic—wrap the flag around it—rattle the sabers—rally the troops, all to mask the real problems.”

“This is fantasy politics isn't it? What is Spain going to do—invade Gibraltar?”