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Going to War With Spain: The Latest Episode in a Whitehall Farce

Jonathan Eyal
Commentary, 4 April 2017
Indications from the EU that Spain may get a special say over Gibraltar in the final Brexit deal have raised hackles. There has even been talk of a potential ‘war’ between Spain and the UK. All nonsense, but the episode does raise some very important questions for the future of the Brexit negotiations.

‘Up Yours Senors’ screamed today’s front-page headline in The Sun. The British tabloid, once a favourite of those seeking soft porn rather than hard news and now increasingly abandoned by both audiences, is promising an extended ‘Gibraltar Campaign’. This, no doubt, will generate further patriotic stunts.

However, even the serious media spent the past 48 hours weighing the ‘possibilities’ of ‘war’ with Spain. RUSI was inundated with calls from journalists working for respectable outlets earnestly seeking information about the ‘assets’ the Royal Navy ‘may be able to deploy’ to the Iberian peninsula should ‘the worst happen’.

Meanwhile, Britain’s European partners watched in amazement as the Brits appeared to be preparing for war, tut-tutting about how, allegedly, a once intelligent and sober nation could work itself up into such a lather. Brexit, it was suggested, poisoned not only British hearts, but also British minds.

Yet the reality is that the entire ‘War with Spain’ episode is just a badly scripted – and even worse-acted – Whitehall farce; it’s a pure non-story, a classic example of how a slightly disorientated, long-retired British politician can work the media into a frenzy for no other purpose than to satisfy his ever-malevolent intent. 

The only person who raised the possibility of a war with Spain over Gibraltar was Michael Howard, a man who spent a couple of years over a decade ago trying to revive the electoral fortunes of the Conservatives by rabble-rousing the party and its supporters against immigrants – and failed on every count.

The fact that he is now a Peer of the Realm and a welcome guest in TV studios says more about Britain’s tradition of rewarding failure than about his real influence. ‘Baron Howard of Lympne’, as he is bombastically known, is hardly representative of today’s UK.

Spain remains one of Britain’s closest partners and allies, the preferred holiday destination and residence for millions of ordinary Brits. It is a democracy that will not block an equitable divorce deal between the UK and the EU. It is a nation with which Britain will reach an equitable arrangement.

British Prime Minister Theresa May was right to laugh off the entire affair; the sooner the 75-year-old baron – with his ruminations against ‘Spanish-speaking countries’ – is forgotten, the better.

Still, the episode does highlight some important and serious aspects. The first is the basic fact that, whether London likes it or not, the thorny question of Gibraltar will be a complication in the Brexit negotiations.

There cannot be any change in the territory’s status without the consent of its people and no government in London will compromise on that point, but it is pointless and counterproductive to pretend that the issue simply does not exit, as we made clear days after the British narrowly voted to leave the EU last June.

Second, it is obvious that, from now on, the UK must expect the EU to side with Spain in this matter; the days when the EU was careful not to take sides in a dispute between two of its member states or acted as a facilitator to prevent flare-ups are over.

This is not because many European nations care about Gibraltar, or because they are persuaded by Spain’s arguments; Madrid’s position – by which its own enclaves in Morocco are considered ‘integral parts’ of the Spanish state, while Gibraltar is regarded as a ‘colonial anachronism’ – elicits wry smiles from many European diplomats.

Still, standing by Spain is a relatively cost-free way of displaying pan-EU solidarity, so London should expect very little support from the rest of Europe on this.

There is also the question of coordination on this matter among British government departments. Senior government sources indicate that the Gibraltar government’s request for its special situation to be mentioned in the official letter which May sent last week to the EU Council, notifying the rest of Europe of Britain’s intention to leave the EU, was overruled by officials in Downing Street and their counterparts in the Department for Exiting the EU, to the chagrin of the Foreign Office.

If true, then such mishaps should not be repeated. May was probably justified to refrain from mentioning Gibraltar in her initial letter to the EU; to do otherwise would have been tantamount to admitting that a problem exists and that Gibraltar is a potential chip in the greater diplomatic barter game about to unfold.

But now that the issue is in the open, there is no further need to be shy about mentioning it.

And, if the British government is to tackle the question of Gibraltar, it will be well-advised to concentrate on what really matters. For the real question is not the continuation of British sovereignty over the territory, but whether Gibraltar will end up getting the same benefits as the UK will get out of any Brexit deal. The danger is that it will not, at Spain’s behest, and that is what the self-appointed British patriots should really worry about.

Still, the entire episode is a reminder of just how easy it is for visceral anti-Europeans in Britain to corner May with endless flag-waving and patriotic slogans at the slightest hint that she may be about to ‘sacrifice’ national ‘interests’.

It is also a reminder of how irresistible the temptation is for media networks to play up to the views and importance of largely irrelevant populist individuals. But then, that is the way every Whitehall farce works: it’s as much a joke on the spectators as it is on the protagonists.

Banner image: No monkeying about over Gibraltar. A Barbary Macaque sits on a railing overlooking the Rock. Courtesy of Gibmetal77/Wikimedia.


Jonathan Eyal
Associate Director, Strategic Research Partnerships

Dr Eyal is the Associate Director, Strategic Research Partnerships, and International Director, at the Royal United Services Institute... read more

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