After the Brexit vote, the UK faces a new fight over Gibraltar

A new battle over this imposing rock.
A new battle over this imposing rock.
Image: Jon Nazca / Reuters
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Following its vote to exit the European Union, the UK is being forced to revisit an issue that had appeared settled. Gibraltar, a small British overseas territory at the entrance to the Mediterranean known for its famous Rock of Gibraltar, has become once again the subject of a tussle with Spain.

On Friday (June 24), Spain’s acting foreign minister, José Manuel García-Margallo, argued that Brexit had reopened the question of Gibraltar’s sovereignty. “It’s a complete change of outlook that opens up new possibilities on Gibraltar not seen for a very long time,” he told Onda Cero radio. “I hope the formula of co-sovereignty—to be clear, the Spanish flag on the rock—is much closer than before.”

The territory, a 7-square-km area that sits on the south coast of Spain, has been under British sovereignty since 1713 after being wrested away from the Spanish during naval wars. It became a British colony in 1830. The enclave is self-governing except for defense and foreign policy, and its residents are British citizens.

Those residents have rejected joint sovereignty before. A referendum in November 2002 was rejected by almost 99% of voters. But in this week’s Brexit vote, they voted overwhelming to stay in the EU, with 95.9% of 30,000 voters voting to remain.

Gibraltar is heavily dependent on the EU and its border crossing with Spain for trade and freedom of movement. Both are in a state of uncertainty as the UK must renegotiate its provisions for free trade and unrestricted passage of people when it negotiates its exit from the EU zone.

The UK and Gibraltar governments firmly rejected the notion of changing Gibraltar’s status. “I want to be absolutely clear,” said David Lidington, the UK’s minister for Europe in The Guardian. “The United Kingdom will continue to stand beside Gibraltar. We will never enter into arrangements under which the people of Gibraltar would pass under the sovereignty of another state against your wishes. Furthermore, the UK will not enter into a process of sovereignty negotiations with which Gibraltar is not content.”

The territory’s chief minister, Fabian Picardo, told Gibraltar’s parliament that the territory’s government is “confident in the support from the British government that there will be no talks, or even talks about talks, against the express wishes of the people of Gibraltar in respect of the sovereignty of Gibraltar.”