On page 8 of the EU’s draft negotiating guidelines, Gibraltar is mentioned as follows: ‘After the United Kingdom leaves the Union, 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.’
A spokesperson for No. 10 Downing Street said today ‘The PM made clear that, on the subject of Gibraltar, the UK’s position had not changed: the UK would seek the best possible deal for Gibraltar as the UK exits the EU and there would be no negotiation on the sovereignty of Gibraltar without the consent of its people.’ (The Guardian)
In a referendum called by its government in 2002, Gibraltarians voted 99% against the proposal ‘Do you approve of the principle that Britain and Spain should share sovereignty over Gibraltar?’ Their preference for British sovereignty perhaps isn’t best described as “loyalty” to the then Labour British government, as the referendum was called to stymie talks by then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw with his Spanish counterpart, which had led to the beginning of an agreement for joint UK and Spanish sovereignty.
Gibraltarians also voted 96% to Remain in the EU referendum. Their desire to remain within the European Union wasn’t necessarily “loyalty” either, but it was clear endorsement of the benefits of EU membership to this British Overseas Territory.
Gibraltar got into the EU on the coat tails of the UK, as a European territory ‘for whose external relations a Member State is responsible’. Even though it is a separate jurisdiction to the UK and has different exemptions to various aspects of EU membership, Gibraltar’s membership is nonetheless tied to the UK’s and it will leave the EU with the UK.
Gov.uk describes the UK’s relationship with its Overseas Territories in the following terms: ‘The UK has specific constitutional and legal responsibilities for its 14 Overseas Territories and a responsibility to ensure their security and good governance. We’ve set out a partnership approach based on shared values and a right to self-determination.’
The Government of Gibraltar website gives a long description of its political evolution, including efforts at UN level since 1963 to address UK-Spanish conflict over its sovereignty. This description concludes at the aim of modernising Gibraltar’s constitution, ‘so that Gibraltar would remain British but in a non-colonial relationship with Britain’.
There are only 30,000 people living in Gibraltar, so on the face of it, the EU should be in a position to be generous in any settlement, to acknowledge that nearly all of these people voted Remain.
Similarly, the EU already has various arrangements with non-EU micro-states such as Andorra, the Holy See, Liechtenstein, Monaco and San Marino, which have roughly a population of 180,000 between them. It seems likely that Gibraltar could enter into a similar arrangement. Even if the EU wants to take the opportunity to limit the ability of Gibraltar to facilitate off-shore industries and tax avoidance, it is already proceeding with regulation on these lines with the other micro-states with which it deals.
However, there are more important principles at stake here for the European Union and what it represents for its citizens.
To what extent does the EU—as an organisation—value the “loyalty” of the vast majority of Gibraltarians?
Is the EU simply a vehicle for member states—in this case Spain—to pursue their ambitions, or does the EU have its own, post-nationalist, viewpoint on the issue of Gibraltar’s sovereignty?
To what extent will the treatment of Gibraltar represent a signal to other small member states that the EU does or does not value their citizens’ willingness to continue with the European Project?
Similar questions apply to the UK too. It is one thing for the PM to support continued British sovereignty over Gibraltar as long as Gibraltarians want it, but it is another question as to whether the UK values Gibraltar enough to broker them a bespoke deal to remain closer to the EU than the UK, in line with their overwhelming Remain vote.
Lecturer in Public Policy and Public Management at Ulster University. Researching economic inequality, public value creation, and societal wellbeing. On Twitter @natpolicy