A former Spanish prime minister was in the habit of saying that, for Madrid and London, the issue of Gibraltar was not unlike having a stone in one’s shoe: an irritant which just wouldn’t go away. More a Rock than a stone, Gibraltar has certainly borne out Felipe González’s observation over recent days as both countries have struggled to remain diplomatic within the context of Theresa May struggling to save her draft withdrawal agreement. Spain’s Europe Minister, Marco Aguiriano, accused the UK of operating deceitfully under cover of darkness, whilst David Lidington, effectively May’s Number Two, curtly reminded his interlocutors on a recent visit to Madrid that the UK’s position regarding Gibraltar’s sovereignty was not up for discussion. Moreover, he suggested that Madrid should instead confine itself to solving specific issues, such as the question of Spaniards working in Gibraltar – around 8,000 cross over from Spain every day to work on the Rock, according to Gibraltar’s government.
The vibrancy of Gibraltar’s economy certainly offers a clear contrast with the sluggishness largely in evidence on the Spanish side of the border. Although both Mariano Rajoy’s former centre-right government and Pedro Sánchez’s current centre left-administration undertook not to seek to make use of Theresa May’s Brexit travails to exert pressure on the UK in negotiations over the Rock’s future, Madrid has been forthright in defence of its interests. Spain has consistently reminded London that all twenty-seven remaining EU member states expressly agreed, shortly after Theresa May activated Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, that any deal struck between the EU and the UK would not apply to Gibraltar unless both London and Madrid provided their consent; the future of Gibraltar would have to be negotiated separately from any trade deal with the UK. Madrid’s anger over recent days has centred on the failure of the UK government’s draft agreement to acknowledge this reality, thereby further obfuscating the issue of Gibraltar. Pedro Sánchez therefore indicated that he would be prepared to withhold his support for Theresa May’s withdrawal deal unless his concerns about consent on the issue of the Rock were addressed in a satisfactory manner.
For its part, the UK has barely acknowledged Spain’s suggestion since the Brexit referendum that joint sovereignty over Gibraltar would enable the Rock to continue to benefit from the frictionless trade which lies at the heart of the European Union. Pedro Sánchez’s recent decision to maintain the issue of sovereignty on the agenda must also be viewed within the context of current domestic political events, most notably regional elections in Andalusia, which borders with Gibraltar, on 2nd December. Andalusia has been under the control of Sanchez’s Socialist PSOE party for almost four decades, and Sánchez is under pressure to play the sovereignty card in response to the accusations of his centre-right Popular Party rival that his minority government is incapable of protecting Spain’s interests. It remains to be seen whether, despite the issues outlined above, the UK is still capable of obtaining Spain’s support for its draft withdrawal agreement at the Special meeting of the European Council on Sunday 25th November.