The weirdening of Gibraltarian sovereignty

Amid the fuss over Northern Ireland’s new political position in a halfway house between the United Kingdom and the European Union, less attention has been given to other British territories affected by Brexit. Among them is that peculiar peninsula at the south of Spain: Gibraltar.

As anyone with access to Wikipedia will tell you, Britain nicked the territory off Spain through the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. The British wanted it because of its commanding position at the western entrance to the Mediterranean Sea, which has proved useful in protecting trade and waging war in the centuries since.

Gibraltar was unique among the British Overseas Territories in being part of the EU during British membership of the bloc, even voting for the MEP for South West England constituency. (It was however exempt from the customs union.) In this respect it was distinct from even the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, which were not technically part of the EU.

In a further twist Gibraltar has been pulled closer to the EU by the eleventh-hour agreement with Spain drafted on New Year’s Eve. Under the deal border controls will be eliminated between Gibraltar and Spain, allowing travel to continue even more freely than during the days of EU membership.

Facilitating this, Gibraltar will become part of the Schengen Area of common travel throughout the EU. Spain will act as a guarantor and EU border staff will operate at the former’s port and airport for the next four years.

Gibraltar’s chief minister Fabian Picardo likewise confirmed that the agreement will “seek to address maximised and unrestricted mobility of goods” between the territory and the EU. “We will also seek to reach agreement on matters related to the environment, the level playing field, social security coordination, citizens’ rights, data and matters related to continued document recognition and other ancillary matters,” he added.

The above are sensible measures for protecting Gibraltar’s economy against the risks of a hard Brexit, which might have prevented thousands of Spanish residents crossing into the territory to work. The deal also protects Gibraltarians’ right to enter Spain.

The net effect of this is to extend the lopsided constitutional arrangements that have developed in Britain’s post-imperial era. Gibraltar’s willingness to be bound closer to Spain and the EU contrasts its rejection of joint British-Spanish sovereignty in a 2002 referendum, following a deal brokered by the UK government.

I suspect that, as with Northern Ireland, some governments in London have found Gibraltar’s status more trouble than it is worth. The difficulty is that under the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht the UK cannot grant Gibraltar independence; any renunciation of sovereignty must lead to the territory being ceded back to Spain, or so the country argues.

It is tempting to conclude that Gibraltar will one day return to Spanish control given the rupture over Brexit. Yet an article by Joseph Garcia, deputy chief minister of Gibraltar, from February 2019 suggests that many in the territory continue to feel strongly British, and that the 96% vote for remaining in the EU was seen as a way to protect that identity.

The historical record shows that British jurisdictions have a remarkable appetite for unusual constitutional arrangements. Gibraltar’s peculiar position is set to become moreso.

Jimmy Nicholls
Writes somewhat about British politics and associated matters. Contact jimmy@rightdishonourable.com

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