Brexit Is an Opportunity to Take Back Control — For Spain

With Britain out, other EU nations have no reason to push back against Spanish irredentism anymore.

The Rock of Gibraltar, April 6, 2016
The Rock of Gibraltar, April 6, 2016 (Scott Wylie)

When Brexiteers argued leaving the European Union would be a chance to “take back control”, they presumably didn’t mean for Spain. But it is thinking just that.

Now that the United Kingdom has formally triggered its exit from the bloc, the Spaniards smell an opportunity to take back control of a territory they lost to Britain over 300 years ago: Gibraltar.

Spain still claims the peninsula, calling British control a form of latter-day colonialism. No matter that Gibraltarians have twice expressed an overwhelming preference to remain British: in 1967 and 2002.

They also voted overwhelmingly to stay in the European Union last year. 96 percent of the territory’s residents voted “remain” in the referendum.

They were overruled by majorities in England and Wales, who were lured to Brexit by its promises of fewer immigrants, higher health care spending and independence from Brussels regulation.

It is an irony that a campaign that so harkened back to an era of British greatness could now doom one of the few remaining bastions of that era.

Spanish veto

Gibraltar’s economy was once dependent on British subsidies and defense jobs. Now it makes its money from finance, shipping and tourism, all of which rely on open borders to Europe.

Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy has already told his British counterpart, Theresa May, that he will not allow Gibraltar to remain in the European single market if Britain leaves.

He could block such a deal on his own. Unanimity would be required from the remaining 27 member states for a special arrangement.

And it doesn’t look like the other 26 are in a mood to do Britain, or Gibraltar, any favors.

Why take Britain’s side?

The negotiating strategy set out by the European Council and published by the Financial Times reads that “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.”

There is no legal reason why Madrid should be able to block a post-Brexit deal for Gibraltar.

But there is no political upside for any of the other EU nations in taking Britain’s side against Spanish irredentism.

If only there were “experts” who could have told British voters this might happen.