Theresa May has insisted that Britain’s relations with Spain remain on a basis of “jaw-jaw”, after a predecessor as Conservative leader suggested that she might be ready to resort to war to defend Gibraltar.
After an EU document suggested that Spain would be given a veto on post-Brexit agreements governing the British overseas territory, Lord Howard said he was certain that the 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 Sir 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 told reporters.
“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.
Lord Howard repeatedly compared the situation to the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands that led to war with the UK in 1982. He said: “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.”
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 on Monday at the start of a pre-planned 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 Lord Howard was trying to establish is the resolve that we will have to protect the rights of Gibraltar and its sovereignty.”
Mrs May said: “Our position on Gibraltar has not changed. We will be working with them and as part of our negotiations to ensure that we get the best possible trade deal for the United Kingdom and the best possible deal for Gibraltar.”
The PM has reiterated her message of support in a phone call to Gibraltar’s chief minister Fabian Picardo, who declared the territory’s 30,000 citizens would not be treated as “bargaining chips” in Brexit negotiations.
Mr Picardo told the BBC it was “very helpful of Spain to have put this front and centre this early on in the process”, rather than waiting until the final moment to throw a spanner in the works, as some had expected.
“I think Spain has made a huge error of judgment not just in putting this early on, but in effect denying their own citizens the application of that deal if they work in Gibraltar going forward,” said Mr Picardo.
Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said: “Whilst the Government seems exercised by the return of blue passports and imperial measures, it is some relief that Mrs May seems to be ruling out sending a gunboat to Gibraltar.
“It is extraordinary that just days after the Government triggered Article 50, a former leader of the Conservative Party has already raised the prospect of war with one of our nearest European neighbours.
“And then, far from seeking to reduce the tension, Number 10 decides to ramp up the rhetoric by boasting of its resolve. Mrs May seems determined to lose friends and alienate people.”