Don’t mess with the Rock: An insider’s account of the last Gibraltar fire-storm

Denis MacShane
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Royal Navy Warships Arrive In Gibraltar As Row With Spain Continues
Gibraltar will be very exposed once it leaves the EU (Source: Getty)

The one iron rule in British politics is don’t mess with the Rock. Gibraltar is pure third-rail politics that can ignite into a political fire-storm at the drop of a peseta, cent or penny.

I discovered this as a Foreign Office minister who spoke Spanish and knew many Spanish politicians and journalists (and still do.) I loved going to Gibraltar as it was a wonderful step backwards into my youth, with Watneys Red Barrel on sale, a Woolworths, and people dressed in the blazing Andalusian sun as if going to church on a sunny Sunday in Wiltshire.

In fact, the Rock’s politics is dominated by the Labour Party and trade unions. Its biggest defender used to be Jack Jones, the legendary trade union leader who fought in the Spanish Civil War and hated Franco, and thus raised Gibraltar as a symbol of freedom until 1975 when Franco died.

Luckily for Gibraltar, the UK had entered Europe by then and Margaret Thatcher became a strong supporter of Spain entering the European Community too. Under EU rules every UK citizen in Gibraltar has the right to live in Spain, and many do as the colony is so small the only way to get a nice house with a swimming pool is to live across the border. Indeed, all the UK citizens in Gibraltar speak Spanish as well as and often better than English. Ten thousand Spanish citizens cross the frontier every day to work.

Read more: Spain tries to put the UK between the Rock and a hard place after Brexit

For sure, Madrid does not like the Union Flag flying over the territory. The UK handed Minorca back to Spain in the nineteenth century but the Royal Navy wanted its base at the entry and choke point into the Mediterranean. There is now a much bigger US naval base at Rota just up from Gibraltar. Spain is one of America’s closest Nato allies, so one wonders what the Pentagon makes of bellicose jingoism from the defence secretary, let alone Michael Howard’s invocation of the war over the Falklands.

Up to 1m Brits have quietly retired to or live in Spain and get on well locally. Their fate is now up for grabs as they lose EU citizenship. Less than one third are registered as officially resident, and it is going to be a nightmare to get every EU citizen in the UK and all British expats in Europe listed, named, identified and registered once they lose EU treaty rights to live, study, work or retire anywhere in Europe.

Spain would love a joint sovereignty deal over Gibraltar and in order to curry favour with the then right-wing Spanish Prime Minister, José Maria Aznar, who was lining up with George W Bush on Iraq, Tony Blair initiated talks carried out by Jack Straw as foreign secretary and Peter Hain as Europe minister.

Read more: Gibraltar won't pay the price of being Spanish to access the single market

They turned into a political disaster. The Conservatives led by Howard accused Labour of betraying Gibraltar. The Gibraltar government spent fortunes flying down any MP who wanted a jolly little trip to the sun, and very effective lobbying by the Gibraltar Office in London made sure there was almost unanimous Commons and tabloid fury at even discussing a deal with Madrid over the Rock.

When I became Europe minister I decided to shut it down, close the file, and return it to the Foreign Office drawer marked “Not to be opened for another 50 years”. I went to Madrid and gave interviews which led to front pages comparing Gibraltar to Ceuta and Melilla – two Spanish enclaves on Moroccan territory. Now it was the turn of Spain to go mad as they regard those enclaves as 100 per cent Spanish, just as we regard El Peńon – as the Spanish call Gibraltar – as 100 per cent British.

Aznar even called up Blair to abuse me personally, but I just knew that opening up the Gibraltar wasps nest was lose-lose and nothing would be achieved.

Read more: This Rock is not for turning: Why Gibraltar backs remaining in the EU

When the Spanish Socialists won power in 2004, they were more reasonable and we could negotiate a deal to allow direct fights between Madrid and Gibraltar. While the very short airstrip is on Gibraltar-UK territory, all the approaches need Spanish permission which is given under EU aviation laws and directives.

It is clear that the UK government was asleep at the Brexit wheel in not highlighting Gibraltar in its Article 50 letter. But once the UK leaves the Single Market, the Customs Union, repudiates free movement, and opts out of EU aviation treaties and the right to defend Gibraltar’s exotic tax arrangements in Brussels, the Rock will be very exposed.

Perhaps we can give a pair of cutlasses to Howard and Nigel Farage, but Gibraltar is going to face a very tricky future when the UK leaves Europe. And no amount of jingoistic invocations of the Falklands can alter that worrying reality.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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