Gibraltar “Affair”–The Spanish View and a Lesson in Modern Diplomacy

The rising tensions around Gibraltar this past week show that many people in the UK care very deeply about Gibraltar, and rightly so. For a number of reasons made only more important by Brexit, and discussed in a previous article for the British Foreign Policy Group, Gibraltar is a unique asset and an important part of the UK’s global role. However, these tensions are also a clear warning of the diplomatic challenges that post-Brexit Britain could face. Much of the British media raucously reacted to the European Council’s proposal to include what effectively would be a Spanish “veto” over Gibraltar in their draft Brexit negotiations guidelines, with Lord Howard even suggesting that “May would be prepared to go to war over Gibraltar”. These comments have had a snowball effect, with inflammatory rhetoric about Gibraltar and Spain escalating in the UK. This ‘noise’ has the potential to be detrimental to the UK’s aims. Not only does it muffle out the UK’s own diplomatic efforts, but it also hinders a more reasoned understanding of the issues at hand among a wider UK audience that has a growing role to play in securing, or frustrating, our national interests in an increasingly complex international environment.

What is the Spanish view of the current Gibraltar ‘affair’?

Our position on Gibraltar has been much covered in the UK – summarised by Boris Johnson : “As ever, the UK remains implacable & rock-like in our support for Gibraltar”. Ensuring we maintain this position whilst maximising UK interests in Brexit negotiations requires not only an understanding of our position, but also of the position of those with whom we are dealing, in this case Spain. Thus far such understanding seems  – at the very least  – limited in much UK commentary.

It is true that the predominant view in Spain has been that the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, made a strategic “mistake” and appeared “weak” by not mentioning Gibraltar in the UK’s Article 50 letter to the EU, allowing Spain to take the initiative and secure a diplomatic victory and a potential “veto” over Gibraltar in the Brexit negotiations. But despite the talk of a missed opportunity for the UK in the Spanish press, the rhetoric and tone from the Spanish government has not been one of confrontation. The new Spanish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alfonso Dastis, does indeed aim to bring Gibraltar closer to Spain, and has said that Spain “cannot accept aspects such as the question of the airport on territory that wasn’t ceded under the Treaty of Utrecht”. However, his tone is far more conciliatory than that of his predecessor, José Manuel García Margallo. Margallo, only replaced 5 months ago as minister, had stated shortly after the EU referendum vote, that he would “Fly a Spanish flag over Gibraltar sooner than Picardo thinks”.

In contrast to the sensationalist tone employed amongst some UK commentators, there are (or at least were) in fact signs of a Spanish move towards warmer relationships with the UK. On the 25th of March, a full 6 days before the UK received the EU draft guidelines – Dastis discussed Gibraltar in an in-depth interview with Spanish newspaper ABC. He rejected claims that joint sovereignty was the only solution, stating that “ it takes two to tango”, and that if the UK and Gibraltar do not want joint sovereignty then there is nothing Spain can do about it. Whilst he said that Spain’s interests will be a feature of the Brexit negotiations, he firmly stated (and has re-affirmed since) that Spain would not be taking any reprisals against Gibraltar, highlighting the importance of Gibraltar to the thousands of Spaniards who commute there for work.

Implications and Recommendations

This latest Gibraltar affair has shown how dramatisation by parts of the UK public, press, and parliament, can potentially undermine the broader diplomatic efforts of the UK. This includes the undermining of our international profile as an intelligent and reasonable actor, as seen by Dastis showing surprise at our “uncharacteristic lack of traditional British calm and composure”. More broadly, whether it be threats of military action against Spain, or jokingly naming the efforts to re-engage effectively with the Commonwealth as “Empire 2.0”, the UK risks weakening an otherwise potentially strong position through a combination of sensationalism, insensitivity and a lack of international and historical awareness. May’s strategy to laugh off talk of war is undoubtedly the correct one, but risks being overwhelmed by wider heightened rhetoric. Increasing the frequency and improving the quality of discussion across the whole of the UK on UK foreign policy issues is one effective way of allowing for a deeper national understanding of foreign policy which would help avoid this kind of situation.

In a digital world where everyone has a voice, and that voice can reach further than ever before, official state-to-state diplomacy is just one element in the maximising of our national interests. The rising popular element to international diplomacy is playing an ever-increasing role in determining the UK’s future as a global actor. A successful post-Brexit Britain will require a strong commitment to diplomatic values and expertise as we reconfigure and rethink our different networks of global partners. However, it will only succeed with popular support and informed engagement across the UK. The British Foreign Policy Group offers a platform for the UK to run both a successful and innovative rethink of its foreign policy alongside a truly national engagement on how to secure the best outcomes for all our people.

If the UK can achieve these goals and apply them to the Brexit negotiations, there is little reason to believe Spain will actively pursue its theoretical power to veto a UK-EU deal. What this inflated row around Gibraltar does demonstrate is the importance of the UK pulling together in a reasoned and informed manner. It is this that will allow us to secure the deals and relationships required to maintain and extend the UK’s position as a respected and influential global power in a post-Brexit world.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the BFPG. The BFPG is an independent not for profit organisation that encourages constructive, informed and considered opinions without taking an institutional position on any issue.
Edward Elliott

Edward Elliott is a Senior Associate at the British Foreign Policy Group.