The full political consequences of the decision by British voters to pull their country out of the European Union will be not be evident at first. However, it is now clear that the British referendum has moved a number of questions that had been languishing for years or even decades in a state of limbo awaiting a final decision, back onto the international agenda. Those issues include the problem of Gibraltar, a dilemma for both the UK and Spain, which could under certain circumstances also become a problem for the European Union and NATO (Gibraltar is the site of a NATO naval base).
The fact that Spain and the UK were both EU and NATO members had heretofore checked their ambitions in regard to this strategic cliff at the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula that overhangs the strait connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. Since 1713, Gibraltar has been an overseas territory of Great Britain, but Spain has always disputed that status.
Gibraltar is considered part of the European Union thanks to the Great Britain’s membership. The citizens of Gibraltar are citizens of the UK and the EU. And now Spain, itself under increasing pressure from Catalan and Basque separatists, has seen Great Britain’s plan to pull out of the European Union as a way to win Brussels’ support for Madrid’s disputes with London.
Prior to the British referendum, the Spanish government promised to demand control of Gibraltar the «very next day», should the British leave the EU. In turn, Gibraltar’s Chief Minister Fabian Picardo warned that if the Brexit advocates were successful, Spain would «pounce on» that British overseas territory, emphasizing, «It is safer and more secure for Gibraltar to remain in the EU».
The residents of Gibraltar responded wholeheartedly to the plea to «stay in the European Union». With a high turnout of 82%, over 19,000 voters (out of Gibraltar’s total population of 32,000) opted for Great Britain to remain in the European Union, with only about 900 residents supporting the Brexit. But this show of support was little help to the Brexit opponents in Gibraltar.
As soon as the referendum’s results were announced, Spanish Foreign Minister José García-Margallo y Marfil took the first step toward resolving the issue of gaining control over Gibraltar – referring to «new opportunities» such as the introduction of «joint sovereignty».
In turn, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond acknowledged that London will now be less able to defend Gibraltar’s interests. And he claimed that any problems in the Spanish-British relationship would be «extremely damaging to the Gibraltar economy».
The National Interest, an American journal, named the «dispute between Britain and Spain over the sovereignty of Gibraltar and the strategic control of the strait leading into the Mediterranean» as the foremost conflict threatening the cohesion of the European Union.
«This is one corner of the UK where people clearly support staying in the EU out of fear that a Brexit would lead Spain to tighten border controls and that it would lose its EU-negotiated favorable tax rates», emphasized another American magazine, Politico. «Thousands of Spaniards cross the frontier every day to work. Spain has said that in the event of a Brexit it will allow for market access as long as the UK offers joint sovereignty over the Rock – which is not likely to happen».
Although Spain and Britain have quite an idiosyncratic relationship over the question of Gibraltar, it should be noted that there is already an established history of specific provinces (although not states) withdrawing from the European Union. In 1985, Greenland, an autonomous territory belonging to Denmark, was permitted to withdraw from the EU’s predecessor after conducting a referendum, and in 2012 the Caribbean island of Saint Barthélemy seceded from Guadeloupe – an overseas department of France – and changed its status to that of a French overseas territory. For that matter of course, Algeria won its independence from France in 1962, after the French had already emerged as part of the «core» of what is today the European Union.
This change to the EU’s agenda, in response to the problem of Great Britain’s EU membership and the status of Gibraltar, could also reignite other European conflicts. Now that the Brexit backers have won, the EU’s diminished political resources would not seem sufficient to allow it to pose an obstacle. As recently noted by the Czech website Parlamentní Listy, «the EU has gotten one kick in its rear, and those are going to just keep coming».