Sunday 18 February 2018

May slaps down Tory outburst on Gibraltar

Prime Minister Theresa May on visit to Jordan yesterday
Prime Minister Theresa May on visit to Jordan yesterday

Andrew Woodcock

British Prime Minister Theresa May has slapped down Tories promoting an aggressive approach to Spain's fresh claim on Gibraltar amid Brexit talks.

After an EU document suggested that Spain would be given a veto on post-Brexit agreements governing the British overseas territory, former Conservative leader Michael Howard said he was certain the British prime minister would be ready to defend the Rock as Margaret Thatcher did the Falklands.

His comments led to a call from Madrid for the UK to calm down, and forced Downing Street to dismiss suggestions that a taskforce could be sent to the Mediterranean outpost.

Asked during a visit to Jordan whether she could rule out war with Spain, Mrs May evoked Winston Churchill's famous dictum that it is always "better to jaw-jaw than war-war".

"What we are doing with all European countries in the European Union is sitting down and talking to them," she said.

"We are going to be talking to them about getting the best possible deal for the United Kingdom and for those countries, Spain included.

"It's definitely jaw-jaw."

Although there was no reference to Spain's claim to sovereignty in the Brexit negotiating guidelines released by European Council President Donald Tusk last week, the decision to give Madrid a specific role in deciding if a trade deal will apply to the Rock caused deep unease in Westminster.

Mr Howard repeatedly compared the situation to the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands that led to war with the UK in 1982.

"Thirty-five years ago this week, another woman prime minister sent a taskforce halfway across the world to defend the freedom of another Spanish-speaking country, and I'm absolutely certain that our current prime minister will show that same resolve in standing by the people of Gibraltar," he said.

Responding to the former Tory leader's comments in Madrid, Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis said: "The Spanish government is a little surprised by the tone of comments regarding Gibraltar coming out of Britain, which is a country known for its composure."

Mr Dastis met Brexit Secretary David Davis for talks yesterday at the start of a two-day visit to Spain and Portugal.

Downing Street characterised the discussions as "very friendly and very constructive", adding that Mr Davis echoed Mrs May's position that Britain will be "steadfast in our support for Gibraltar".

A Number 10 spokesman insisted that the deployment of a Falklands-style taskforce "isn't going to happen", adding: "All that Mr Howard was trying to establish is the resolve that we will have to protect the rights of Gibraltar and its sovereignty."

Irish Independent

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