Spain’s Prime Minister sparked a backlash over a bid to seize control Gibraltar – which diplomats have branded as ‘completely silly.’
Pedro Sanchez said that ‘everyone loses’ when it comes to Brexit, but Spain’s position on the issue of Gibraltar has emerged stronger in the Brexit deal signed off on Sunday by EU leaders.
He said the UK’s withdrawal from the EU would ‘open talks on joint sovereignty’ of the Rock, which has been a British overseas territory since 1713.
But EU diplomats have privately derided his claims that British sovereignty over Gibraltor would end during Brexit trade talks next year.
‘It is a completely silly and empty thing,’ one senior EU diplomat told The Times.
EU diplomats were also furious at Spain’s ‘outrageous’ last-minute grandstanding.
The country was the last to agree to the Brexit deal, saying it would only back it on condition of a guarantee of Madrid’s say in the future territory at its southern tip.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez (pictured in Madrid yesterday) has claimed Brexit could mean splitting the sovereignty of Gibraltar between Spain and the UK
Spain claims Gibraltar even though it was ceded to Britain in 1713.
‘It is really outrageous,’ a senior EU diplomat told The Telegraph of the move.
‘It is trying to turn back history for more than 300 years. There is no scrap of justification.’
Speaking in Brussels on Sunday, Mr Sanchez said of Theresa May’s divorce deal: ‘We are going to resolve a conflict that has been going for over 300 years.
‘This puts Spain in a position of strength in negotiations with the United Kingdom over Gibraltar that we have not had until now.
‘We all lose [with Brexit], especially the United Kingdom, but regarding Gibraltar, Spain wins.’
Sanchez’s comments were also met with fury by the island’s chief minister Fabian Picardo, who likened Mr Sanchez’s tactics to the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco.
Mrs May’s fellow Tories are also angry, claiming she has ‘caved in’ to European leaders on Gibraltar and ‘sold out’ the 30,000 British citizens who live there.
Asked if he would seek a discussion over joint sovereignty once Britain leaves the bloc on March 29 2019, Mr Sanchez added: ‘We will discuss all issues.’
Mr Sanchez’s comments have been met with fury by Gibraltar’s chief minister Fabian Picardo, who likened his tactics to the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco (pictured)
But Mr Picardo said: ‘We do not need to wait until the start of the talks.
‘I can tell Spain now: we are not interested in any dilution of our sovereignty, we are not interested in allowing for even the remotest concession to Spanish sovereignty, jurisdiction or control.’
Spain will vote in local, regional and European Parliament elections on May 26 2019, with talks of a general election as well to make a ‘super Saturday’ of voting.
Mr Sanchez, who only has a minority government, propped up by other parties, has been accused of trying to strengthen his position on Gibraltar ahead of voting next year.
After promising Britain will ‘always stand by Gibraltar’, Mrs May told reporters at today’s EU summit: ‘I am proud that Gibraltar is British and its constitutional status will not change.’
But the other members of her party are not convinced, with former Deputy Commons Speaker Nigel Evans saying yesterday: ‘To sell out 17.5 million people [who voted to leave the EU] with her Brexit deal is one thing, to go against the wishes of the DUP who keep us in power is another.
‘But to sell out the utterly patriotic British people who live on Gibraltar is simply beyond the pale.’
Theresa May (pictured in Brussels making a statement on her deal today) she had reassured Spain over Gibraltar and they will vote for her EU withdrawal agreement at today’s summit. But MPs warn she is ‘selling out’ the residents of the Rock
The Ribble Valley MP added: ‘Theresa May is dining in Brussels with people who are delighted with her deal – in fact they could have written it themselves.
‘But on Monday she will return to a very different atmosphere in Westminster – one of betrayal.’
Romford MP Andrew Rosindell also slammed her over Spanish negotiations, saying: ‘The Prime Minister has to show that she will be utterly true to her words that there will be no compromise on Britain’s right to defend and negotiate on behalf of Gibraltar.
‘She must vow that Spanish attempts to use this constitutional weapon to try somehow to divide the Rock and the UK will not work.’
Tory Eurosceptic Nadine Dorries said: ‘May has capitulated to every single EU demand. She’s abandoned Northern Ireland, and now Gibraltar. At no time does she push back.’
Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesman Tom Brake claimed the Prime Minister had ‘caved in’ and ‘appears to have cast the people of Gibraltar aside’.
Theresa May said on Saturday talks with her Spanish counterpart had been ‘sensible and constructive’ after he threatened to boycott today’s all-important Brexit summit.
Tory doubts over Theresa May’s (pictured with EU Council President Donald Tusk in Brussels yesterday) Brexit plans for Gibraltar could make her battle to get her deal through the House of Commons even more difficult
But Mr Sanchez’s apparent stepping up of his bid to gain more influence over Gibraltar is causing mass controversy there and at home.
He implied that assurances from EU leaders could mean Spain’s relationship with the the British territory radically changes after Brexit.
He said yesterday: ‘The European Council and the European Commission have backed Spain’s position, and backed it as never before.’
Spain’s Europe Minister Josep Borrell Fontelles further inflamed tensions this week by saying the UK leaving the EU poses the biggest shake-up to the sovereignty of the island peninsula since it was handed to the British in 1713 with the Treaty of Utrecht.
Almost all of Gibraltar’s residents voted to stay in the EU and are nervous about what Brexit will mean for them, as the local economy is propped up mainly by customs duties and offshore finance.
Even with EU President Jean Claude Juncker saying the Commission will give Mrs May’s withdrawal agreement the green light, MPs back at home are still likely to have objections.
On top of the Northern Ireland backstop, the Gibraltar issue could make getting Brexit through the House of Commons even more difficult.
Tory MP Andrew Rosindell warned it could also threaten her leadership.
He said: ‘If there is any sign of any backtracking or watering down on this issue, that alone will inspire huge numbers of people to lose confidence in her leadership’.
Mr Sanchez was elected to office this summer, when he became the first Spanish politician to take over as a Prime Minister through a vote of no confidence.
He unseated his long-term enemy Mariano Rajoy, despite not being an MP and having to resign from his party, the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) in 2016 over his refusal to accept Rajoy’s return.
Before coming into politics he worked for the UN in Bosnia and as an economics professor.
He has had a difficult year with the outbreaks of violence in Catalonia and anger from his opposition parties about Spain’s long-term economic problems.
Gibraltar is a haven for all kinds of funny business but ‘The Rock’ is British to the core and its people are determined to remain so
By Brendan Carlin, political correspondent for The Mail on Sunday
With fish and chips and warm beer galore, modern Gibraltar looks for all the world like a little bit of Britain on the Med.
But perched on the very tip of the Iberian peninsula, its omnipresent Union Jacks and souvenir ‘Her Majesty’ mugs are seen as a daily affront by many of its Spanish neighbours.
For decades now, UK-Spanish relations have been dominated by the Rock and Madrid’s repeated claims to sovereignty.
And more recently, it has come under fire for its low-tax regime and financial rules, with over 60,000 companies reportedly registered there – roughly two for each of its 30,000 or so residents.
With no large-scale agricultural or industrial activity, much of the Rock’s income comes from customs duties, offshore finance, internet gambling and provisioning of ships.
For decades now, UK-Spanish relations have been dominated by the Rock of Gibraltar (pictured) and Madrid’s repeated claims to sovereignty
It is also coveted by Royal Navy crews as the ultimate stop-off point after long voyages as a ‘little piece of home’.
Gambling giant Bet365 – whose UK boss Denise Coates last year earned £265 million – has based its international operations there since 2014.
Financial services, tourism, low-tax goods and online gambling are key sectors of the local economy.
This imposing limestone outcrop – home to those famous barbary macaque monkeys – with its strategic position on the western gateway to the Med, has been British for more than 300 years.
It was formally ceded in perpetuity to Britain in 1713 under the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht which brought an end to the War of the Spanish Succession.
Named in Arabic ‘Jabal Tariq’, after the Muslim commander Tariq Ibn-Ziyad who turned the Rock into a fortress in 711, it has been an important naval base for more than 1,000 years.
That long maritime history explains its diverse population, with many residents of mixed Genoese, British, Spanish and Maltese descent.
Most Gibraltarians can speak both English and Spanish.
As a British overseas territory, it is home to a military garrison and has a naval base. But over the past few decades, the EU has sought to put pressure on London and Madrid to resolve its future status. Both sides have tried to arrive at an agreement.
However, Spain’s insistence on eventually obtaining total sovereignty over the territory, allied to the UK’s determination to keep full control of Gibraltar’s military bases, have proved serious stumbling blocks. So too has the local population’s determination to remain British.
The Rock’s 2006 constitution stipulates that there can be no transfer of sovereignty to Spain against the wishes of its voters.
In a referendum in 2002, Gibraltarians resoundingly rejected the idea of joint sovereignty between the UK and Spain.
Free travel between Spain and Gibraltar was fully restored in 1985, but travellers continued to suffer delays at the border.
Gambling giant Bet365 – whose UK boss Denise Coates (pictured) last year earned £265 million – has based its international operations on Gibraltar since 2014
In late 2006, passenger flights between Spain and Gibraltar resumed for the first time in nearly 30 years, though seven years later there were renewed border checks by Spain in response to a Gibraltarian plan to build an artificial reef.
The 2006 air link was restored after Gibraltar, Spain and Britain signed agreements aimed at improving living conditions on the Rock.
In the 2016 EU referendum, the Rock voted overwhelmingly against Brexit.
And even though the UK overall did not, Gibraltar’s leaders have made clear they prefer to follow the motherland out of the EU.
But for Madrid, Brexit represents a golden opportunity to overturn three centuries of history and stage their own bid to ‘take back control’.