After Brexit, Britain Gets Into War of Words Over Gibraltar

An allusion to the British war to keep the Falkland Islands in 1982 sparked the spat

Less than a week after asking for a divorce from the European Union, Britain is talking war.

The dispute over Gibraltar is a conflict of words, not weapons — a matter of bellicose headlines in Britain and bemusement in Spain. But it's a sign of how rough the road ahead could be as the U.K. extricates itself from the 28-nation bloc.

The rocky 2.6 square mile enclave at the tip of the Iberian peninsula has been a British territory — and cause of friction between the U.K. and Spain — since 1713.

The latest spat was sparked by draft Brexit negotiating guidelines drawn up by the EU, which said no future agreement between Britain and the bloc would apply to Gibraltar unless both the U.K. and Spain agreed.

Officials in Gibraltar accused Spain of using Brexit to force negotiations on the status of the territory, against the wishes of the 32,000 Gibraltarians, who overwhelmingly want to remain British.

Gibraltar's chief minister, Fabian Picardo, accused Spain of taking a "predatory attitude."

Some pro-Brexit voices in Britain went even farther.

Former Conservative Party leader Michael Howard said Prime Minister Theresa May would defend Gibraltar as her predecessor Margaret Thatcher did the Falkland Islands.

Howard told the BBC on Sunday that in 1982, "another woman prime minister sent a task force halfway across the world to protect another small group of British people against another Spanish-speaking country. And I'm absolutely clear that our current woman prime minister will show the same resolve in relation to Gibraltar as he predecessor did."

Howard spoke on the 35th anniversary of Argentina's invasion of the Falklands, a South Atlantic archipelago that has been British since 1833. Britain retook the islands in a brief war that killed 649 Argentines, 255 British soldiers and three islanders.

His comments raised a few eyebrows in Madrid. Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis said "the Spanish government is a little surprised, actually, by the tone that has been generated in Britain, a country traditionally known for its composure."

He told journalists that on the question of Europe and the issue of Gibraltar, "Britain's traditional calmness is conspicuous by its absence."

In Britain, Howard's comments produced ridicule from opponents and chest-thumping delight from some sections of the press.

Conservative lawmaker Dominic Grieve, the head of Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee, called the remarks "a little bit apocalyptic." Former Labour Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said raising the specter of war "is frankly absurd and reeks of 19th-century jingoism."

Some newspapers, however, took the comments as a chance to wave the Union Jack. The Daily Mail compared the size of the British and Spanish navies, while the Daily telegraph quoted a rear admiral as saying Britain "could cripple Spain."

May moved to damp down the warlike rhetoric Monday, saying that when it comes to the EU, "it's definitely jaw, jaw" — a reference to Winston Churchill's dictum that "jaw, jaw" is better than "war, war."

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson reassured Gibraltarians that the territory's sovereignty "is not going to change and cannot conceivably change without the express support and consent of the people of Gibraltar and the United Kingdom."

Gibraltar is highly unlikely to be a trigger for war, but resolving its status will be tricky — one of many complex issues that must be resolved within the two-year time limit for Brexit negotiations.

Thousands of people cross the Spain-Gibraltar frontier in each direction for work, and the Spanish government has said that it will ensure the border remains open. But that would require a special deal for Gibraltar once Britain leaves the EU single market and ends automatic free movement of people from other EU nations.

A solution will require compromise — and it is just one of many potential sticking points in Brexit negotiations, from the status of the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland to French and Italian concerns over food standards.

"You're dealing with 27 countries with their own specific and peculiar interests in particular economic sectors, and they'll all have issues," said Anand Menon, director of the group U.K. in a Changing Europe.

The episode is also a reminder that the noisy British press will be a factor in the negotiations to come.

"If the perpetual background drumbeat to these negotiations is the right-wing populist one, it might make it harder for the prime minister to compromise and make a deal," Menon said.

Lorne Cook, Aritz Parra and Ciaran Giles contributed to this story.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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