By Jonathan Rimmer
Spain’s senior diplomat has urged the UK not to “lose its temper” over Gibraltar after a former Conservative leader made belligerent comments on Sunday.
Alfonso Dastis, foreign minister for Spain, said he was surprised by the UK’s tone in response the European Union’s Brexit negotiation guidelines, which effectively gave Spain a veto on the peninsula’s future.
He said: “The Spanish government is a little surprised by the tone of comments coming out of Britain, a country known for its composure.”
Speaking on Sunday, former Tory leader Michael Howard said the UK government would stand by Gibraltar “no matter what” and suggested it would be prepared to go to war over the oversea territory.
Mr Howard told Sky News on Sunday: “Thirty-five years ago this week, another woman prime minister sent a taskforce halfway across the world to defend the freedom of another small group of British people against another Spanish-speaking country.
“I’m absolutely certain that our current prime minister will show the same resolve in standing by the people of Gibraltar.”
The UK Government have ruled out a sending a task force to protect Gibraltar, but Prime Minister Theresa May refused to condemn Mr Howard for his comments.
However, Mr Howard’s words were dismissed as “apocalyptic” by Dominic Grieve, the chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee.
He said: “I don’t think I would have expressed myself in the terms that Michael Howard did, because it sounds a little bit apocalyptic. We have no evidence at the moment that the Spanish government would seek to invade and take over Gibraltar.”
Labour former foreign secretary Jack Straw told BBC Radio Four’s Today programme he did not believe the status of Gibraltar posed a major danger to a Brexit deal.
“The idea of Britain going to war, or Spain going to war against Britain, over Gibraltar is frankly absurd and reeks of 19th century jingoism.
“I doubt very much that Gibraltar will be the deal breaker.”
Gibraltar’s status has long been a bone of contention – Spain has a long-standing territorial claim on the territory, which has been held by the UK since 1713.
The issue reared its head after the UK’s referendum last year, when 96% of residents voted to remain in the EU.
Mrs May, who triggered article 50 to leave the EU on Wednesday, has confirmed that the UK will also be leaving the single market.
However, the EU’s Brexit negotiation draft documents include a clause which gives Spain the ability to exclude Gibraltar from any UK-EU transitional single market access arrangement.
Gibraltar’s chief minister Fabian Picardo said the territory is committed to the United Kingdom.
He said: “Let us be very clear and let the message be clear in Madrid, in Brussels and in every other capital of the European Union.
“Gibraltar is not a bargaining chip in these negotiations. Gibraltar belongs to the Gibraltarians and we want to stay British.”
In an effort to provide reassurance to Gibraltar, Mrs May reiterated the “long-standing position that the UK remains steadfastly committed in its support for Gibraltar, its people and its economy” in a phone call to Mr Picardo.
A Downing Street spokeswoman said: “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.”
However, senior diplomats have said the EU will not back down in its support for Spain’s demands.
One diplomat told The Guardian: “It is not a problem that was born yesterday. It has been with us a long time and we have always listened to both sides. Now we are going to support the member state.”
Picture: Wikimedia Commons