The question of Gibraltar’s sovereignty has raised endless conflict between the United Kingdom and Spain for many years. With the recently proposed British exit from the European Union, also referred to as “Brexit,” it has caused more salt to be poured into the wound for the Spaniards and Gibraltarians as this infamous exit could affect who retains control over the territory.

A bone of contention

Reviewing literature on the topic suggests that British sovereignty will remain over the territory, but not without strong attacks from the Spanish government. Historically, Gibraltar was settled by the nomadic North Africans who ruled Spain for many years, known as the Moors. After the Spanish Reconquest, the territory was absorbed into the Spanish kingdom and remained under Spanish control until 1713, when the Treaty of Utrecht was signed. The treaty declared that Gibraltar must be ceded to the British following the agreements made after the War of Spanish Succession. This event has been a stain on Spanish history ever since, and the Spanish still struggle over the fact that they do not hold sovereignty over the territory.

Gibraltarians have a different perspective on the matter. The people have multi-ethnic backgrounds and even their own language, Llanito, so they have developed their own national identity, although they have stated time and time again that they align more with the British than the Spanish. It also has been stated many times by the Gibraltarians that they do not want any form of Spanish sovereignty over them, even joint sovereignty with the British. Evidently, the results of a 2002 referendum on the question of joint British-Spanish sovereignty indicated that there was strong lean against joint sovereignty where about ninety-eight percent of those who voted stated they did not want the Spanish to share control with the British over the territory. Despite the clear indications from the Gibraltarians that they do not want the Spanish to hold any form over power over them, the Spanish continue to insist that the territory is rightfully theirs and that they want and will retain control over Gibraltar one day.

The view from Spain and Britain

Conflict also exists at the domestic level within Spain. Political parties like the Spanish Socialist Party and the Popular Party often disagree on how the matter should be approached, with the Socialists adopting a more diplomatic stance towards Gibraltar and Britain. The Popular Party takes a more conflictive approach on the matter, having had a history of placing more restrictions along the border to make life more difficult for the British and Gibraltarians. Literature suggests that British parties do not disagree as much as the Spaniards do across the aisle, as they generally oppose the idea of Gibraltar ever receiving some form of autonomy in the future. The idea of Gibraltar becoming an autonomous entity was extremely preposterous to the British in the years following the end of World War II, and today the needle of opinion has yet to move proving that Gibraltar is a strong geopolitical issue in today’s political atmosphere. However, in order to understand the complexity behind the matter on Gibraltar, it is crucial that one studies the discourse behind Brexit.

Reasons for why the Brexit referendum turned out as it did can be attributed to many factors, but several academic sources appear to relate three major factors to why Great Britain wants to exit the European Union: economic issues, political elitism, and the question of sovereignty. These factors can be considered umbrella factors as they encompass several subfactors that explain the results of the referendum. Economic issues can be tied back to globalization and the dying out of once prosperous industries such as iron or coal. Immigration was also a hotbed issue as voters from regions losing economic prosperity used immigration and the EU open borders policy as scapegoats for why unemployment was occurring in these areas, although survey results indicate that these voters’ lack of higher education in their backgrounds was a reason why they were left without jobs as they could not compete with higher educated immigrants. Political elitism comes to no surprise as all of Europe has been facing the rise of far-right populism in recent years. British voters have shown they align more with the emerging United Kingdom Independence Party, UKIP, because of how tired they are with the main parties in power, the Conservative and Labour Parties. UKIP has been able to relate to domestic frustration better than the big two, so voters feel that supporting UKIP will lead to more changes being done in their favor. Of course, supporting UKIP means that voters would want the United Kingdom to distance itself from the European Union and its policies. This connects to the question of sovereignty, as nationalist sentiment has become more prominent globally. The leave side believes being a member of the EU prevents the UK from reaching full autonomy and sovereignty over its own territory. They have a misconstrued idea that exiting the EU would mean they can benefit from trade relations and have sole control over their own territory at the same time, but the inability to come up with a solid trade deal has thrown this idea into total jeopardy.

The UKIP and leave side appeared to have strong support within English territories, but referendum results also show that the Scottish, Gibraltarians, and Northern Irish do not relate as much to the calls for a British exit. There was a ninety-six percent from an eighty-four percent turn-out vote to remain in the European Union in Gibraltar. Being a part of the EU is extremely beneficial to the Gibraltarians as they receive so many benefits, as promised by Article 355 of the Treaty of the Functioning EU. It protects them from Spanish territorial aggression as Spain does not want to jeopardize its reputation in the EU. Membership in the European Union does not force Gibraltar to choose a side in the British-Spanish debate; as both are members, it makes sense why they would choose to remain rather than leave, as the pros severely outweigh the cons.

Implications for Spain

Brexit has also given the Spanish some political leverage over the British. Former Prime Minister Theresa May failed to mention Gibraltar in her Article 50 letter, which gave the Spanish some ammunition, claiming the UK is weakening its hold over the territory. The Spanish government has also softened its stance on Scottish independence, claiming it would not veto any calls for Scottish independence, something Spain has abstained from addressing in the past as this would add fuel to the fire for Catalan Independence. Even the European Union has taken up a position, obviously leaning with the Spanish, indicating some form of lobbying done on Spain’s part. Spain can easily throw the UK into economic turmoil regarding an EU trade agreement if the UK cannot satisfy Spain with an agreement on sovereignty in Gibraltar. Gibraltarians are aware of how the Spanish have twisted the situation in Spain’s favor and have complained to the British, forcing them to harden their stance on retaining sovereignty. With the UK adopting a more defensive stance, the only way Spain can achieve favorable results is through the Brexit negotiations.

Spain has managed to somewhat turn the situation in a positive light by coming up with a non-binding agreement with the British over Gibraltar. This means that any decisions on Gibraltar do not have to go through the EU, instead everything is handled directly with Spain. On the other hand, as this is a non-binding agreement, it can easily backfire on at any moment as both sides are not forced to keep up their part of the deal.

Another complicated situation that has arisen is the gaining influence the nationalist, far-right party Vox has been receiving. Their platform is structured around reconquering Gibraltar, and if they ever gain enough seats in Spanish parliament, it could mean trouble for Gibraltar and the UK.

Recent events and literature on the Gibraltar debate indicate that Brexit will not be the issue that resolves it. Relations have been on a constant slippery slope ever since the conclusion of the War of Spanish Succession. What decisions each side decides to take will decide whether the situation worsens or improves. For the time being, Gibraltar will most likely continue to find itself at the middle of a rigorous and brutal game of tug-of-war.

Carla Álvarez Fortson is a student in Political Science and International Relations at Saint Louis University – Madrid Campus

To quote this article, please use the following reference:

Carla Álvarez Fortson (2019). “After Brexit: What Next for Gibraltar?”, Observatory on contemporary crises, November 10, 2019, URL:  http://crisesobservatory.es/after-brexit-what-next-for-gibraltar-c-alvarez-fortson/