Analysis

Brexit Is an Opportunity to Take Back Control — For Spain

With Britain on the way out, why should other EU countries push back against Spanish irredentism?

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

When Brexiteers said leaving the EU would be a chance to “take back control”, they probably weren’t thinking of Spain. But Spain has been thinking about them.

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

Colonialism

Spain still claims the peninsula, calling Britain’s control a form of latter-day colonialism. No matter that Gibraltarians have twice, and overwhelmingly, voted to remain British: in 1967 and 2002.

They also voted to stay in the EU. 96 percent of the territory’s residents voted “remain” in the 2016 referendum.

They were outvoted by majorities in England and Wales, who were lured to Brexit by the promise of independence from Brussels.

It is an irony that a campaign which harkened back to a time of British greatness could 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 with the rest of the EU.

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 when 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 Madrid should be able to block a post-Brexit deal for Gibraltar.

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

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