Let’s get something straight up front: Spain and the U.K. are not going to war over Gibraltar.
That, at least, is what politicians from both countries have been carefully asserting since Michael Howard, a former British Conservative party leader, made a not-so-subtle suggestion Sunday that force would be on the table in some recent unpleasantness over the long-disputed peninsula.
“Thirty-five years ago this week, another woman prime minister sent a task force halfway across the world to defend the freedom of another small group of British people against another Spanish-speaking country,” Howard told an interviewer, referring to the brief 1982 Falklands War between the U.K. and Argentina, “and I’m absolutely certain that our current prime minister will show the same resolve in standing by the people of Gibraltar.”
Asked about Howard’s comment Monday, Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesman made her answer plain, the Guardian reports: “It isn’t going to happen.”
May herself laughed when asked by reporters whether she’d rule out war with Spain. She told reporters the fraught talk over Gibraltar — a tiny chunk of land contiguous with Spain but controlled by the U.K. — is merely part and parcel of British negotiations to leave the European Union. Those talks formally kicked off last week, when May triggered the U.K.’s departure.
“What we are doing with all European countries in the European Union is sitting down and talking to them. We are going to talk to them about the best possible deal for the United Kingdom and for those countries, Spain included,” May said.
“Someone in the U.K. is losing their cool and there’s no need for it,” Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis also cautioned, when asked about Howard’s comment.
Still, the question bears asking: Why is it that a roughly 2.5-square-mile peninsula parked on the southwest tip of Europe — with just about 30,000 people on it — has international leaders so worked up?
The answer, as it turns out, can be taken in three parts:
While there has been no lack of friction between the two countries over the past three centuries on the topic of Gibraltar — more on that in the next section — the point of contention that has stoked tensions lately pertains to (what else?) Brexit.
Shortly after May triggered Brexit, the EU issued a nine-page document that laid out its draft negotiating guidelines for the 27 countries remaining in the union. For the most part, those guidelines looked much as people expected — yet a surprising statement lurked near the end:
“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.”
That proposed condition came as unwelcome news to British lawmakers, who widely viewed it as giving Spain veto power over any agreement on Gibraltar’s fate — and thus, an encroachment on British authority over the territory it has owned (despite occasional protests from Spain) since 1713.
“Gibraltar is not a bargaining chip in these negotiations. Gibraltar belongs to the Gibraltarians and we want to stay British,” Gibraltar Chief Minister Fabian Picardo said, according to the BBC.
Likening Brexit to a divorce, he cast European Council President Donald Tusk as “a cuckolded husband who is taking it out on the children.”
May laughed off the prospect of war this time around — but the Rock of Gibraltar is no stranger to spilled blood.
The land mass doesn’t boast much in the way of natural resources, but its position as a hinge point between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, standing between Europe and Africa, made it an attractive possession for the colonial powers.
Captured from the Spanish in 1704 during the War of the Spanish Succession, Gibraltar was ceded to the British “in perpetuity” in the Treaty of Utrecht, the peace that ultimately brought that fight to a close in 1713.
Naturally, that was by no means the end of the dispute, which has manifested itself by turns as heated words, blockades and even further violence. Later that century, for instance, the Spanish launched a yearslong — and unsuccessful — siege that bequeathed no greater fruit than a rather stirring painting by John Trumbull.
More recently, Lauren Frayer reported for NPR that in 1969 Spanish dictator Francisco Franco closed the territory’s border with Spain, effectively isolating it from all but sea and air travel. Franco maintained this policy on and off for another 16 years before the border was opened again.
“For the Spanish, Gibraltar is an affront to their sense of national identity and their sense of sovereignty,” Jack Straw, former British foreign secretary, told BBC Radio 4. “It’s a bit like having a part of Dover being owned by Spain.”
But what do the Gibraltarians have to say about it?
Well, even that is a tad complicated. Despite its geographical proximity to Spain, a visitor to Gibraltar would be forgiven for feeling much closer to London. People on the peninsula use British currency, pay taxes to British authorities, even boast London’s distinctive red phone booths.
In fact, take away a map and the few facets of the scene that may give things away are the Mediterranean sun and omnipresence of apes — which, as Lauren notes, are the only ones to be found on the European continent.
“We’ve been British for 300 years, and we have a hostile neighbor. People here identify themselves at British, they feel British. The identity of this people is intimately linked to this rock,” local newspaper editor Brian Reyes told Lauren in 2014. “Sure, it’s just a rock. But it’s a place — it’s a home. And it’s a pretty iconic rock.”
In 2002, partly at Straw’s urging, Gibraltarians weighed in on whether they preferred Spain to share sovereignty over their territory. In that referendum, about 99 percent voted to remain with the U.K. Only 187 of people voted in favor of joining up with Spain, according to the Guardian.
Still, the roughly 30,000 Gibraltarians, many of whom commute across the border into Spain for work, voted in similarly overwhelming numbers to remain in the EU — about 96 percent in the June 2016 Brexit referendum.
But Picardo warned that Spain should not take this in any way as an opening.
“Spain might like to use Gibraltar as a political pawn, the European Council may have allowed Spain to put this issue in this current draft of the guidelines, but Gibraltar is not going to be a political pawn of Brexit,” he told British media Friday.
“Gibraltar is going to be very prosperous and very successful and entirely British before, during and after Brexit.”