Wednesday 24 April 2019

John Downing : 'Colonial legacy refuses to go away as Rock of Gibraltar now puts UK in hard place'

Gibraltar voted 96pc Remain in the Brexit referendum on June 23, 2016. Photo: PA
Gibraltar voted 96pc Remain in the Brexit referendum on June 23, 2016. Photo: PA
John Downing

John Downing

Spare a thought for the hard-pressed people of Gibraltar, a place which shares a huge chunk of history with Ireland. This final Brexit strop over the Mediterranean rock's status is stuffed with irony.

In terms of EU scale, the whole population of that rock equates to a full double-decker bus, but while there are 34,000 Gibraltarians to the EU's total of 500 million people, hold on to a few key facts. They voted 96pc Remain in that Brexit referendum on June 23, 2016 - vastly more than the 56pc to 44pc in favour of Remain in the North. It even dwarfs the 62pc to 38pc Remain majority in Scotland. We all well know that the final 52-48 Leave vote was driven by the bigger population in England.

Now Gibraltar finds it is the "rock" in that hoary old drama, which leaves the EU wedged between it and the proverbial "hard place".

Just four months before the UK formally leaves the EU, the divorce treaty and an accompanying political declaration on future ties are due to be rubber-stamped by British Prime Minister Theresa May and the other leaders of the 27 countries remaining in the EU, including Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

It is all still programmed to happen tomorrow in Brussels - despite the threatened opposition of Spain.

In strictly legal terms, Spanish opposition is not enough to block this Brexit clearance by EU leaders, but in reality the EU wants to preserve the remarkable unity they have shown over Brexit during the past two and a half years.

Like Ireland through all of this, Gibraltar is also the meat in the sandwich, this time between Spain and Britain in a 300-year-old dispute.

The other irony is that, for all its modernity and promotion of post-World War II consensus, there are times when old Europe's colonial legacy just will not go away.

Gibraltar's shared history with Ireland in summary looks like this. Spain was obliged to cede the strategic point overlooking the Mediterranean to England by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. On the throne in London at the time was Queen Anne, who had succeeded William III, also known in these parts as King Billy.

The Spaniards remember all that. Sound familiar?

Why can I instantly tell you that the Plantation of Ulster was in 1608, in the reign of James I, and that it started a chain of events in the North of Ireland?

I will not labour the historical fact that the aforesaid King Billy broke the Treaty of Limerick signed in my old hometown in October 1691.

It is time to fast-forward 300-plus years to a late November weekend in Brussels.

There we find that Ireland, and specifically the North of Ireland, appeared to be the final obstacle to a draft EU-UK Brexit treaty.

Suddenly, the EU governments appear ready to patch up a deal on Ireland and get ready to move to the next tortuous and uncertain phase. Then enter the Rock of Gibraltar and the Spaniards threatening to rain on the parade tomorrow morning.

Well, like the ongoing Brexit rows about Ireland, we need to step back a little here.

We need to acknowledge that Gibraltar remains an irritant to the proud people of Spain and has done across more than three centuries.

We must also note that there are regional elections in Andalusia - that region of Spain which borders Gibraltar - tomorrow week, December 2.

The socialist prime minister, Pedro Sanchez, hopes a good result here could springboard him to a win in upcoming national elections.

So Spain wants changes to the UK's legal withdrawal treaty and the accompanying political declaration.

They want it made clear that any future decisions about Gibraltar would only be taken in partnership with Madrid.

Spain wants that commitment from the UK in writing before the summit. Brussels officials hope it can be sorted.

Irish Independent

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