“The Rock” Caught In A Hard Place

Flags of Gibraltar. Photo by Olivier Bruchez via Flickr, Creative Commons

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
April 8, 2017

Legend has it that as long as the five troops of 300 Barbary Apes continue to live in Gibraltar, the 6.7 square kilometre peninsular on Spain’s southern tip will remain British.

But as the reality of Britain’s exit from the European Union begins to bite, the future of Gibraltar, British territory since it was ceded by Spain in 1713, is now up in the air along with those of Scotland, Northern Ireland and perhaps even Wales.

A monkey in Gibraltar. Photo by Simone A. Bertinotti via Flickr, Creative Commons

Gibraltar’s 32,000 people find themselves in a similar position to the Scots, Northern Irish and Welsh. While the vast majority of them want to remain British – 99 per cent in a 2002 referendum – they also voted 96 per cent in last June’s referendum against Brexit and in favour of remaining in the EU.

The question of Gibraltar shot to the surface this week after the EU parliament adopted rules and guidelines governing the process of Britain leaving the 28-member organization after more than 40 years. The long list of EU non-negotiable starting points is the observation that any deal it strikes with Britain will not apply to Gibraltar, unless Spain agrees to it.

This almost offhand remark by the EU parliament brought a bellicose response from London. Michael Howard, the former leader of Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative Party, noted threateningly that it is the anniversary of the 1982 Falklands War. “Thirty-five years ago this week, another woman prime minister (Margaret Thatcher) sent a task force half way across the world to defend the freedom of another small group of British people against another Spanish-speaking country (Argentina), and I’m absolutely certain that our current prime minister will show the same resolve in standing by the people of Gibraltar,” Howard said.

Prime Minister May tried to play down the notion that Britain’s departure from the EU might be the trumpet call for a war with Spain over Gibraltar. But she left the whole issue up in the air by saying that London’s policy towards Gibraltar will not change. That policy is that Gibraltar is British territory and will be defended as such.

However, the handing of a veto to Spain on the Gibraltar issue by the European Parliament underlines what a weak position the Westminster government is in as it begins the process of extricating Britain from the EU. Brussels controls the timetable and the agenda of the negotiations, and there’s not much May’s government can do about it.

The European Parliament’s resolution says Britons are going to be lucky to leave the EU with the clothes on their backs. There won’t be much else.

Theresa May clearly understands she is playing against an opponent whose hand is and always will be a royal flush. She struck a conciliatory tone in her letter to the EU at the end of last month in which she invoked Article 50, the so-far unused instrument by which countries can seek to leave the EU.

But her blandishments fell on stony ground. Brussels is not and cannot be swayed by sweet words when its prime objective in this whole Brexit exercise is to make Britain’s departure as difficult and painful as possible so that other recalcitrant EU members don’t follow the British example.

Thus May is pushed into the unenviable position of having to manage the reaction of pro-Brexit voters. The 52 per cent of voters who backed leaving the EU are going to have their expectations of immediate liberation from Brussels foiled. They are also going to soon realize that the fables they’ve been fed by leading Brexiteers, as well as May, that Britain’s promised bright future as a buccaneering global trader will not look half as enticing by the time the country finally cuts the last ties with Brussels.

She could yet be forced to hold an election to try to win a mandate – she has none now, not even from the Conservative Party she leads – to bolster her position with British voters and against Brussels.

That recourse has some attractions because of the almost total political impotence of the opposition Labour Party under its leader Jeremy Corbyn, who usually seems like a lost time traveller from the 1960s. But a British election at this juncture would inevitably become a replay of June’s referendum. There are signs that many people who voted for Brexit then have had second thoughts. There are several senatorial figures in the Conservative Party who think voters were hoodwinked in the first referendum and should be given a second go. These figures include former Prime Minister John Major, Thatcher-era minister Michael Heseltine, and Chris Patten — the last British governor of Hong Kong, former EU foreign affairs commissioner, and now a member of the House of Lords. All are adept at lobbing political hand grenades into the room and then watching the explosion from a safe distance.

While Theresa May is aiming for a clear break with the EU, she was also looking for an amicable divorce in which talks could begin on the future broad relationship even as it was being decided who gets custody of the Labrador, the Volvo and the children.

That is not to be. The template passed by 516 votes to 133 by the European Parliament stomps resolutely on May’s hopes.

First, the EU resolution says loudly and clearly that no talks on the future trade and political relationship between Britain and the EU can begin until after the United Kingdom has left the organization. More than that, the resolution says it would be a breech of EU law for London to start any negotiations on trade agreements with third countries before it has left the EU.

So, no chatting with the Trump administration, such as it is, or Canada, Australia, New Zealand or anyone else about post-Brexit trade treaties. And even more than that, it would also be illegal for Britain to hold similar trade talks with other EU members. And as Britain will remain subject to the European Court of Justice during this process, Brussels has a veto on any “illegal” actions by London.

In other words, the British ship of state has to drift off into the stormy Atlantic before there can be any discussion of future visits to European ports. So far, the British economy has defied predictions and weathered the uncertainties raised by the Brexit vote. However, it is difficult to imagine that markets will be able to maintain the same level of confidence when the British government is unable to begin effectively laying the foundations for the future.

The EU resolution is equally mean-spirited about what happens during the course of the Brexit negotiations. It sees this as a two-stage process, with the first stage aimed at reaching an agreement on “transitional arrangements.” Only when Brussels decides that “substantial progress” – whatever that means — has been made towards agreeing transitional arrangements will the clock start ticking on the timing of Britain’s departure. These transitional arrangements “must not last longer than three years,” says the resolution.

Negotiations with London will be led by Brussels’ negotiator Michel Barnier, but the European Parliament will have a veto on the final agreement, as will the parliaments of the 27 remaining members of the EU, which must endorse the final pact.

And that brings the focus back to Gibraltar. An Anglo-Dutch force captured Gibraltar in 1704 during the War of the Spanish Succession, and the territory was ceded to Britain “in perpetuity” under the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht. Possession of “The Rock” gave and gives the Royal Navy control over the entry to the Mediterranean, though Gibraltar now is more important as a financial centre and tourist hotspot.

With its vibrant economy, Gibraltar attracts people from neighbouring, poorer parts of Spain. About 10,000 people from the Spanish district of Campo de Gibraltar travel to and from jobs in Gibraltar each day. That commute is easy while Britain is in the EU, with its free movement of labour and lack of border restrictions. But even though the European Parliament has put fair treatment for Britons living and working in the EU and the same for Europeans working in Britain at the top of its priorities for Brexit, there is no telling at the moment what may happen to Gibraltar’s Spanish workers.

That’s a complication for the Madrid government, which, like most Spanish governments since 1704, would like to get Gibraltar back. There are other difficulties, like the over 300,000 registered Britons living in Spain, many of them on the Costa del Sol. However, the true figure may be much higher, close to 800,000 according to research broadcast by the BBC in 2005. Many, and probably most of these people, have no intention of abandoning their cheap and cheerful sun, sea, sand, and sangria life-style. And there’s a small hardcore of residents of what the British tabloids sometimes call the Costa del Crime, who fled to Spain to avoid British Justice and who have no intention of testing the statute of limitations.

Another problem for Spain is its separatist-inclined Catalans and Basques. Last year the Catalan regional parliament defied the national constitutional court and voted to draft a roadmap towards independence. The Catalans and the Basques have been encouraged by the experience of the Scots.

In a referendum in 2014, the Scots voted by 55 per cent to stay part of the United Kingdom. But in last year’s Brexit referendum 62 per cent voted to stay in the EU. This has led Scottish leader, Nicola Sturgeon, to demand a new referendum on separation. Theresa May will probably have to accede to this request, but she is determined to put it off until after Britain has left the EU. If Scotland then votes to leave the United Kingdom, which it could well do, this would mean the Scottish parliament will have to apply to join the EU, with all the rigmarole that entails.

This has given Spanish Prime Minister, Alfonso Dastis, an opportunity to be mischievous. Although Spain has always opposed Scottish independence from the United Kingdom because it would encourage the Catalans and Basques, Dastis said last weekend Spain will not veto Scottish membership of the EU if independence comes “legally and constitutionally.”

How the Barbary Apes came to Gibraltar is a matter of conjecture and debate. They could have come as pets when most of the Iberian peninsular was an Arab Moorish colony. But the association of the apes – in reality macaque monkeys – with British possession of Gibraltar has been an important piece of propaganda over the years. Winston Churchill understood the morale-boosting value of propaganda better than most.

The apes were under the care of the British army and navy garrisons from 1915 until 1991, when responsibility was handed to the local natural history society. But during the Second World War, the Barbary Ape population of Gibraltar shrunk to just seven individuals. Churchill considered it essential that the myth of the monkeys and British control of Gibraltar not be tested, so he ordered that means be found to replenish the population. After the allies gained control of the old French North African colonies of Algeria and Morocco, relatives of the Gibraltar apes were found and transported to join their distant cousins.

The five troops are now so fecund that there are more apes than the terrain can support, and there is talk of sending some of them back to their ancestral homeland in North Africa.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2017

Contact Jonathan Manthorpe, including for queries about syndication/republishing: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com




Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. He is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan,” and has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.


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