This latest Gibraltar dispute is a sign of things to come

It reminds us of the complexity of the Brexit process

April 05, 2017

It’s less than a week since Theresa May triggered Article 50, but questions of national security have already arisen. The UK has entered into a war of words with its European partners.

Many EU leaders and newspapers reacted with scorn to Theresa May’s Brexit letter, which implied that the UK may barter its contributions to European defence for a more favourable post-Brexit trade deal. Since then, there has been “sabre-rattling” from some Conservative grandees on the issue of Gibraltar: EU negotiating guidelines make clear that Madrid should have a say on any agreement affecting the territory. Michael Howard has claimed that the UK would “go to war” to protect the contested territory just as it had to secure the Falkland Islands in 1982.

This is likely to be the first in a long line of tense political exchanges and bouts of diplomatic posturing on the bumpy road to a fully-negotiated Brexit agreement. Behind the war of words, however, what lies at stake in the debate over Gibraltar’s future, in strategic and military terms? How important is the territory in the grand scheme of things?

Though strategic concerns have taken a backseat to politics in this recent debate, Gibraltar’s important role in UK, European and even US security is often overlooked. As a British Overseas Territory, the small but strategically-located outcrop, guarding the entrance from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, forms a vital part of the UK’s global military network.

Alongside its tourist attractions, Gibraltar hosts a Permanent Joint Operating Base, runway facilities, signals posts, some thirty miles of underground tunnels and a secure harbour guarded by Royal Navy patrol boats and the Royal Gibraltar Regiment. Though the UK does not permanently station military aircraft in the territory, the local airbase is held at high readiness to support rapid deployment of British forces to crisis spots in North Africa and the Middle East.

With its location and infrastructure, Gibraltar has played an important and often unsung role in recent NATO operations. During the 2011 intervention in Libya, it directly supported British units and provided a base of resupply for US Navy submarines launching cruise missile attacks on Gaddafi’s forces. The naval base and its specialised “Z Berth” have also acted as a staging post for missions in the Gulf and non-nuclear repairs of UK and US Navy submarines have been carried out there—highly-sensitive operations that cannot occur in neighbouring Spain.

After three centuries of disputed British rule, the recent furore shows the enduring power of Gibraltar to inflame tensions between otherwise close EU and NATO allies. As the dust settles, a number of important lessons have emerged as Brexit negotiations begin.

Firstly, bitter arguments over national interest could strain even the most concerted attempts to maintain goodwill as Brexit talks unfold. The population of Gibraltar voted by an overwhelming 96 per cent to remain part of the EU yet finds itself in a new confrontation with Brussels and Spain. Even the most Europhile Brits and Anglophile Europeans may find themselves forced into uncomfortable confrontations with close allies as their individual interests become the subject of difficult talks to take the UK out of the EU.

Secondly, this latest dispute shows the difficulty of enforcing a single, coherent diplomatic strategy, as both London and Brussels struggle to keep some semblance of discipline among parties with diverse agendas and diverging interests.

In the UK, incendiary rhetoric about “going to war” in Gibraltar has been criticised as undermining Britain’s negotiating position and limited goodwill with European partners. Within the EU-27, the 26 other member states do not attach anything like the same significance as Spain to the Gibraltar issue and are unlikely to want to see disputes such as these frustrate any broader UK-EU deal. Within NATO, too, the alliance has long called for calm on the issue, in a similar way to how it has sought to moderate tensions between Greece and Turkey over Cyprus.

Thirdly, the sudden and unexpected shift of attention onto Gibraltar so soon after Article 50 points to the sheer complexity and unpredictability of the negotiations that are to unfold over the coming two years.

Clearly, there will be many more bitter disagreements over issues such as migration or trade. Even in the security domain—where both Britain and the EU stand to lose from any breakdown in cooperation—there are a whole host of complex and technical issues that could provoke anger in the domestic press and awkward conversations around the negotiating table. What will be the future arrangements for the UK border at Calais, for instance? How will UK territory in Cyprus be affected? What about cooperation on counterterrorism, cyber, economic sanctions or foreign aid?

Finally, the Gibraltarian case underscores the need for patience, calm and imaginative solutions. Scenarios and arrangements previously thought impossible are now on the negotiating table. Some have suggested that pro-Remain Gibraltar could become an Overseas Territory of Scotland if it were to become independent, as a means of staying in the EU. Others have called for bespoke new arrangements to avoid a “hard border”—just as leaders in Dublin and Belfast are keen to maintain an open border in Ireland.

Whatever the outcome, the issue of Gibraltar is unlikely to be the last complicated security and defence issue up for negotiation during Brexit talks. In many ways, Gibraltar is the first Brexit issue where both the UK and EU find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place. How this diplomatic problem is resolved now could help set the tone for Brexit negotiations during the next two years.