The sabre-rattling in the Mediterranean threatens to further disturb the already stormy situation in the European Union. Alfonso Dastis, Spain’s foreign minister, told a conference in Madrid of his dismay over increasingly blunt warnings coming out of the United Kingdom concerning its claim of sovereignty over the strategic Gibraltar enclave. He said he was "surprised by the tone of comments coming out of Britain" and added, "It seems someone is losing their cool."
 
Recalling the war over the Falkland Islands in 1982, Lord Howard of the UK Tories said on Sunday that Britain is ready and able to go to war over its claim on Gibraltar, which it wrested from Spain in the 1700s and held ever since. Howard, a former leader of the Conservatives, suggested that Britain will resort to armed force to protect Gibraltar, just as it did in the Falklands, which Argentina and the rest of the Hispanic world call Malvinas Islands. He said that 35 years ago, "another woman prime minister sent a task force halfway across the world to protect another small group of British people against another Spanish-speaking country. And I'm absolutely clear that our current woman prime minister will show the same resolve in relation to Gibraltar as her predecessor did."
 
Defense Secretary Sir Michael Fallon told the BBC that the UK would protect Gibraltar "all the way" because its residents have "made it very clear they do not want to live under Spanish rule". 
 
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said, upon arriving at a summit of  EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg: “Gibraltar is unchanged and is not going to change, and cannot conceivably change without the express support and consent of the people of Gibraltar and the United Kingdom, and that is not going to change."
 
British premier Theresa May said that Britain is "committed" to Gibraltar and that its sovereignty is not up for grabs during the current talks over her country’s departure from the EU. 
 
"Gibraltar belongs to the Gibraltarians and we want to stay British," said Fabian Picardo, who serves as Gibraltar’s chief minister.  "Gibraltar is not a bargaining chip in these negotiations," he said.
 
The current diplomatic fracas came about because guidelines concerning Britain’s divorce of the EU, “Brexit”, contend, "After the United Kingdom leaves the Union, no agreement between the EU and the United Kingdom may apply to the territory of Gibraltar without the agreement between the Kingdom of Spain and the United Kingdom."
 
A statement from the prime minister’s office on Sunday was crystal clear: “The prime minister said we will never enter into arrangements under which the people of Gibraltar would pass under the sovereignty of another state against their freely and democratically expressed wishes, nor will we ever enter into a process of sovereignty negotiations with which Gibraltar is not content."
 
Picardo called on European Council President Donald Tusk to eliminate references to Gibraltar in the current negotiations over Brexit. "Mr Tusk, who has been given to using the analogies of the divorce and divorce petition, is behaving like a cuckolded husband who is taking it out on the children," he said.
 
Former Labour foreign secretary Jack Straw was sanguine about the threat of military action over Gibraltar. He said that the idea of military action is "frankly absurd and reeks of 19th century jingoism." He said that Britain’s divorce of the EU will result in "all sorts of problems". He told the BBC, "For the Spanish, Gibraltar is an affront to their sense of national identity and their sense of sovereignty - it's a bit like having a part of Dover owned by Spain."
 
Observing the results of Brexit, Straw said that while the country was joined to the EU, Britain “held equal cards with Spain", but once it left, the situation would be reversed. Currently, he said, it is the 27 EU nations "holding the cards".
 
Spain has long disputed Britain’s claim to Gibraltar, which has a population of 30,000 along with a naval installation. The territory is self-governing in all matters - including taxation - except foreign policy and defense. It is strategically important because of its situation at the opening of the Mediterranean to the Atlantic Ocean and only 12 miles from the north coast of Africa. It has a UK military base, including a port and airstrip. 
 
In April 1982, Argentina’s erstwhile dictatorship invaded the Falkland Islands, having long claimed sovereignty over the oil-rich islands. Margaret Thatcher sent a task force to reclaim the islands, in the South Atlantic in a war in which approximately 655 Argentine and 255 British servicemen lost their lives in the fighting. The memory of that war continues to complicate relations between Argentina and the United Kingdom.


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Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat and the editor of Spero News.

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