Spain has urged the British government to keep a cool head in the negotiations over the future of Gibraltar after the former Conservative leader Michael Howard suggested Theresa May would be prepared to go to war to protect the territory as Margaret Thatcher once did over the Falklands.
“Someone in the UK is losing their cool and there’s no need for it,” said Spain’s foreign minister, Alfonso Dastis.
While he noted that Howard “hadn’t exactly said” that the UK would go to war over the issue, Dastis added: “Making comparisons with past situations like the Falklands is a little out of context. The Spanish government is a little surprised by the tone of comments coming out of Britain, a country known for its composure.”
On Sunday, Howard told Sophy Ridge on Sunday on Sky News: “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, and I’m absolutely certain that our current prime minister will show the same resolve in standing by the people of Gibraltar.”
Spain’s official response to the draft EU Brexit guidelines on Gibraltar has been noticeably low-key. On Friday, the Spanish government spokesman, Iñigo Méndez de Vigo, said Madrid was throughly satisfied that the EU has recognised “the legal and political position that Spain has defended”.
Jack Straw, the Labour former foreign secretary, said on Monday that the idea that Britain could take military action against Spain to protect Gibraltar was “frankly absurd”, and predicted a peaceful post-Brexit solution would be found for the territory.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme Straw, who tried and failed while in office to give Spain joint sovereignty over Gibraltar, dismissed Howard’s comments. “I’m sorry, this is 2017-18, it’s not 1851,” he said.
“The idea of Spain going to war against Britain over Gibraltar is frankly absurd, and reeks of 19th-century jingoism. It’s not going to happen. Evan Gen Franco, the Spanish dictator, never sought to claim the Rock by military means.
“One needs to be extremely careful about throwing out threats of military action where there’s no such possibility of that happening by the Spanish.”
When Straw was foreign secretary, the UK government’s mooted idea of shared sovereignty of Gibraltar led to the territory’s government arranging a referendum on the idea. The results showed 99% of voters opposed it, with just 187 votes in favour.
However, Straw said Gibraltar’s people might have to accept that circumstances had changed.
“It’s in the interests of Gibraltarians for there to be some kind of deal done with the Spanish in the new circumstances, circumstances which the Gibraltarians didn’t want, because they voted in very substantial numbers to stay within the European Union,” he said.
Lord Howard: May will show Thatcher-like resolve over Gibraltar
“For the Spanish, Gibraltar is an affront to their sense of national identity and their sense of sovereignty. It’s a bit like having a part of Dover being owned by Spain.”
However, Straw said Spain would be wary of taking intemperate action. After the 2002 referendum, he said: “The Spanish understood the strength of opinion in Gibraltar and they’ve held back ever since from trying to impose a further solution on the Gibraltarians.”
The row began after the European council, whose members comprise the EU member states, shocked Downing Street by saying the British overseas territory could be included in a trade deal between London and Brussels only with Spain’s agreement.
On Sunday, senior European diplomats warned that the EU would not back down in its support for Spain’s demands when it comes to Gibraltar. Spain are taking this very, very seriously,” one told the Guardian. “I think there is support across the board among the member states. Why not?”
Downing Street has not commented on Howard’s intervention, but released details of a phone call between May and Fabian Picardo, the chief minister of Gibraltar, on Sunday morning.
May told him that the UK remained “steadfastly committed to our support for Gibraltar, its people and its economy”, Downing Street said.
Picardo told Reuters on Monday that the European council president, Donald Tusk, was “behaving like a cuckolded husband who is taking it out on the children” over the Gibraltar clause. “We are not going to be a chip and we are not going to be a victim of Brexit as we are not the culprits of Brexit: we voted to stay in the European Union so taking it out on us is to allow Spain to behave in the manner of the bully,” he said.
Boris Johnson, the UK foreign secretary, said on arriving at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg: “The sovereignty of Gibraltar is unchanged and is not going to change, and cannot conceivably change, without the express support and consent of the people of Gibraltar and the United Kingdom.”