Gibraltar – a large piece of rock over 1,000 miles away from Britain is currently in the midst of conflict over what country has legal sovereignty: the UK or Spain?
But Gibraltar is not just a large piece of rock; it is British overseas territory with 30,000 inhabitants living on it.
Despite compromising of less than 2.6 square miles, it has been in territorial dispute for centuries due to its strategically important position separating Europe from Africa at the entrance of the Medeteranian Sea.
Since the UK voted to leave the European Union, there has been more tension than ever before between the British and Spanish government.
Former Conservative leader Michael Howard has said that if Spain keeps advancing sovereignty claims over British territory, Theresa May would “show the same resolve” over Gibraltar as former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had done with the Falkland Islands.
But why after Brexit has Spain made more advancements towards Gibraltar? Is it revenge, punishment, or do they have a legitimate claim to the land?
To answer this question in relation to the European Union, we need to travel back in time to 1986 when Spain joined the institution.
When they became a member, Spain was forced to give up its claims over sovereignty for Gibraltar. Because the UK is not a member of the Schengen Agreement, Gibraltar was also exempt from this rule. However, Spain was still legally obliged to open their borders to the rock.
Now the UK has triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty – formally announcing their intention to withdraw from the EU, Spain is no longer under a legal obligation to keep these borders open and can initiate territorial claims once again.
During the referendum campaign in late 2015 and early 2016, Gibraltar was a contentious topic. The remain campaign warned that Spain could try and claim sovereignty once again, however, the leave campaign dismissed this as “scaremongering”.
The issue of Gibraltar is more important than ever before as the UK negotiates trade talks with the EU ready for departure in 2019.
Spain will have a veto over arrangements for Gibraltar in these talks, something which has angered the British government.
On Sunday morning, Theresa May spoke to the Chief Minister of Gibraltar on the phone.
A Number 10 spokesperson said: “The Prime Minister called the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, Fabian Picardo, this morning.
“She reiterated our long-standing position that the UK remains steadfastly committed to our support for Gibraltar, its people and its economy. The Prime Minister said we will never enter into arrangements under which the people of Gibraltar would pass under the sovereignty of another state against their freely and democratically expressed wishes, nor will we ever enter into a process of sovereignty negotiations with which Gibraltar is not content.
“The Prime Minister said we remain absolutely dedicated to working with Gibraltar for the best possible outcome on Brexit, and will continue to involve them fully in the process.”
In June, King Felipe and Queen Letizia of Spain will visit the UK on a State Visit. Gibraltar may or may not come up in conversation. However, The King is known to have strong feelings on the matter.
In September last year, he said: “I invite the UK, on this first occasion at the UN after Brexit, to end the colonial anachronism of Gibraltar with an agreed solution between both countries to restore the territorial integrity of Spain and bring benefits to the people of Gibraltar and the Spanish area of Campo de Gibraltar.”
In Spain, His Majesty’s speech was received with great enthusiasm. Spain’s acting Foreign Minister, Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo, said: “It’s a complete change of outlook that opens up new possibilities on Gibraltar not seen for a very long time. I hope the formula of co-sovereignty – to be clear, the Spanish flag on the Rock – is much closer than before.”
But, how did we get to this point? Well, from AD711 to 1462, Gibraltar was under Moorish rule (the same as Spain). Spain then controlled full sovereignty of the rock between 1462 to 1704. During the war of the Spanish Succession, the territory was occupied by Anglo-Dutch forces until 1713.
After the war had ended, Spain viewed Gibraltar as territory taken by right of conquest. However, this was later legitimised through a treaty.
In 1830, the territory was formerly declared a Crown territory and was officially named as such by the United Nations in 1946.
What lies in store for Gibraltar remains unclear. Spain will likely make more calls for the British government to return the rock to them, and this uncertainty will only rise after 2019 when the UK leaves the European Union.
In 1964, the Gibraltar Constitution was implemented which said that sovereign status of the rock would not be changed without the consent of Gibraltar’s people.
The last referendum on Gibraltar’s sovereignty was held in 2002, where 99% of the voting population decisively cast their ballots to remain under British rule.
It is possible another referendum will be held, however, the result is very unlikely to change.