“Thirty-five years ago this week, another woman prime minister sent a taskforce halfway across the world to defend the freedom of another small group of British people against another Spanish-speaking country,” said Howard in an interview with UK broadcaster Sky News on Sunday, referring to the 1982 war between the United Kingdom and Argentina over the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands.
“I’m absolutely certain our current prime minister will show the same resolve in standing by the people of Gibraltar,” Howard said in comments widely viewed as inflammatory, and which came in the wake of news that EU guidelines for Brexit negotiations backed Spain in its conflict over Gibraltar by stating once the UK leaves the bloc, “no agreement between the EU and the United Kingdom may apply to the territory of Gibraltar without agreement between the Kingdom of Spain and the United Kingdom.”
This news has been received positively in Spain but the country’s foreign minister, Alfonso Dastis on, Monday attempted to defuse a tense situation by saying: “There is no reason to lose one’s cool over Gibraltar.”
Dastis also talked down the idea that Howard had been suggesting May was prepared to go for war to defend the The Rock.
“He didn’t exactly say that,” said Spain’s new foreign minister, who has pushed a more moderate line on Gibraltar than his predecessor José Manuel García-Margallo. Margallo stated in October 2016 that the Spanish flag would be flying on The Rock “sooner than [Gibraltar Chief Minister Fabian] Picardo thinks.”
“Bringing up past events like the Falklands is out of context,” said Dastis.
The controversy stirred up by Howard’s comments – and those of UK defense secretary Michael Fallon, who last Friday said Gibraltar would be “protected all the way” – led to Theresa May calling up the Gibraltar Chief Minister to ensure him the United Kingdom would never cede the disputed territory against the wishes of Gibraltarians.
“The Spanish government, if anything, is a bit surprised by the tone generated in the United Kingdom, a country traditionally characterized by its phlegm. It’s clear that on this issue, the traditional British phlegm is recognizable by its absence,” said Dastis on Monday.
The foreign minister’s comments come two days after an interview with in which the minister stated that, unlike Brussels and Berlin, Spain – which has strong trade, economic and other ties with the United Kingdom – was “closer to a soft Brexit, and during which he also said he had “no plans” to close the border with Gibraltar.
A full version of that interview appears below.
Question. Theresa May’s letter triggering Article 50 is a mix of promises and concessions, and also threats and blackmail. Is that a good starting point?
Answer. I don’t see any threats or blackmail, to be honest. There has been an emphasis on a link in the letter between a good trade deal and cooperation over security and terrorism: a kind of trade or terror. But security cooperation benefits Europe as much as the United Kingdom. I don’t feel blackmailed: our security is in the hands of Europe, not in London’s. I don’t think that was May’s intention.
Q. Trade is mentioned alongside security 11 times in the six pages of the letter: the British even threaten not to share Europol data.
A. In such as case, the United Kingdom would not have access to Europol data. And they are much more interested in sharing information.
Q. London wants withdrawal and the trade deal to be negotiated in parallel. Germany has refused this point blank. What about Spain?
A. Spain shares the common position: we want sequential negotiations. But if you read the letter carefully, May is saying that both things, the exit and the free trade deal, should be agreed at the same time, not necessarily negotiated in parallel. Spain believes that the best starting point would be the rights of citizens.
Q. There are half a million British nationals in Spain. Isn’t that something in Spain’s favor?
A. The idea is that the United Kingdom’s statute, when it leaves, would be as close as possible to the present one. It can’t be based on free circulation, but we already have rules with third countries that are very close to the statute of an EU citizen. What’s more, we’re going to apply the principle of reciprocity: if London takes measures that harm the rights of Europeans, we’ll do the same.
Q. What kind of Brexit does Spain want?
A. I would prefer not to simplify, but if we have to choose between a hard and a soft Brexit, Spain is closer to a soft Brexit. We are sorry that the United Kingdom is leaving. We want a balanced agreement, reasonable and rigorous, but if they are going to leave the single market and the customs union, it’s going to be hard for that to be exactly a soft Brexit. Spain wants strong relations with the United Kingdom: the closest possible to what we have now. If people want to call that a soft Brexit, that’s fine by me.
Q. What about Scotland?
A. It will leave the European Union with the United Kingdom: everything else will have to wait. Spain doesn’t like the idea of EU member states fragmenting. That said, if in the application of its laws, the result of the process was to divide the United Kingdom, any part of the United Kingdom that became a state and wanted to join the EU would have to request membership and follow the steps that are already stipulated.
Q. Would Spain veto Scotland’s access?
A. In principle, I don’t see us blocking it.
Q. Do parallels with Catalonia influence that “in principle”?
A. No. There was a referendum in Scotland in accordance with the law. In Spain our Constitution does not allow for a referendum; if the Constitution were to be amended, then we would have to see. I don’t think they are comparable cases.
English version by Nick Lyne.