When Britain kicked off its formal Brexit proceedings last week, few would have predicted that a minor airport would launch such a heated, ludicrous international debate.
The airport in question is certainly a strange one. Its runway crosses a major local road, grinding traffic to a halt for the handful of takeoffs and landings it sees each day. But safety concerns aren’t the reason this airport ended up in the firing line. Located in the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar, its future status has emerged as a surprisingly high-profile sticking point in Britain’s preparations to leave the European Union.
If you’ve been scanning mentions of Gibraltar in the British press over the past week, you might be forgiven for thinking that Britain and Spain were on the brink of war. A European Council statement last week said that any U.K./EU Brexit deal would be subject to a Spanish veto if it also applied to Gibraltar, a steep, narrow rock on the Andalusian coast of Spain governed by the British since 1713. Some British politicians have chosen to read this as an attack on Britain itself, with former Conservative Party leader Michael Howard warning that Prime Minister Theresa May will, as Margaret Thatcher did in the Falkland Islands, “defend the freedom of another small group of British people against another Spanish-speaking country.”
May herself has dismissed such talk, but not condemned it, leaving the tabloid press to screech belligerent, xenophobic headlines as hard as they can (on covers that are simultaneously offering… cheap holidays to Spain). Meanwhile Gibraltar’s chief minister has—I’m not making this up—basically called European Council President Donald Tusk a cuck.
After the relatively mild initial spark, the spat seems a little overblown. Rumbling underneath it, nonetheless, is another fight that could come to be a significant weather vane for Britain’s future place in Europe—a fight in which the airport has been given an unwonted leading role.
Fan away the smoke and the fire underneath the issue is this: In Britain’s upcoming Brexit negotiations, the EU has stated that any deal between the U.K. and the union will need to be approved by the Spanish government if it is to apply to Gibraltar. This would give Spain an opportunity to throw a spanner in the Brexit works if it doesn’t like the Gibraltar settlement. It’s an irony not lost on locals that Gibraltar had the highest votes of any British territory to stay in the EU (96 percent voted Remain), but, faced with the economic threat of a hard border with Spain, could suffer worse effects than anywhere else under British jurisdiction.
The Gibraltar issue could make negotiations more complex, but should come as no great surprise. With just 30,000 inhabitants stacked up the slightly less-steep side of its 1,398-foot rock, Gibraltar may have a long history as British territory, but it’s not an official part of Britain. It’s a British Overseas Territory, a tiny enclave that, size-wise, is little more than a boil on Spain’s backside, albeit an unusually photogenic one. Any deal that treats the territory as part of the United Kingdom would imply an open acceptance of Britain’s right to the land in perpetuity. That’s something Spain is not prepared to countenance, even if it accepts ongoing British rule de facto.
The most contentious sticking point here could indeed be the airport. Britain is looking to keep its access to Europe’s single aviation market, which has seen flight numbers skyrocket and fares plummet since its introduction in 1992. Britain would need to accept all E.U. aviation laws wholesale to maintain access—something Britain may resist but which non-EU member Switzerland already does for similar access. Spain might not want any deal brokered to include Gibraltar, however, because the Spanish government contends Gibraltar’s airport may not actually be on British soil at all.
The issue here is partly British sovereignty, but also connected to the airport’s specific location. It isn’t on the Rock of Gibraltar itself, but on the narrow isthmus linking it to the Spanish mainland. Spain alleges that this narrow neck of land, visible here on Google Street View, wasn’t actually granted to the United Kingdom by the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, the agreement that signed the territory over to the British.
In times of EU harmony, the Spanish might not have minded this so much—Gibraltar’s nine daily flights mean another airport shuttling visitors to its southern beaches. Acknowledging its status in a formal document now is apparently a bridge too far. By backing up Spanish fears in its statements, the EU isn’t necessarily fanning flames. Spain’s comments on the subject have actually been quite cool and measured; sensibly so, given Britain’s status as an important export market and Spain’s continuing maintenance of exclaves in Morocco. What it does make clear is how the terrain is shifting. In the past, the union might have seen itself as an arbiter to smooth things over between Britain and Spain. Now that Britain is leaving the European club, it’s on its own.
Meanwhile, Britain is currently giving the rest of the world a pretty bad impression. A year ago, campaigners in favor of leaving the EU were insisting that Britain could leave but still stay in the single market. Now, less than a week after submitting Article 50, which starts the Brexit process, they’re already talking about war. The media’s rhetoric, meanwhile, is so tub-thumpingly nationalist that they may soon run out of landmasses onto which to project flags and slogans.
All this bluster isn’t doing much to present Britain as a newly confident nation forging a fresh path. Instead, we’re coming across like somebody’s embarrassing drunk uncle at a wedding, shouting semi-coherent smut with his trousers down. Is there more of this still to come? Brexit-wise, today is only Day Six.