Gunboats to Gibraltar: Have London and Madrid walked into a trap?

By James Rogers

Image Credit: Dave Jenkins/MoD

Over the weekend, Lord Howard, a former leader of the Conservative Party, inferred that Mrs. May, the British Prime Minister, would go to war with Spain to defend Gibraltar, should Madrid pursue an aggressive stance with the British enclave during the upcoming negotiations between London and Brussels over the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union. Two days later, British and Spanish gunboats tussled off Gibraltar’s coast.

Such stories are deliberately inflated by the media for political effect, not only by jingoistic Brexiteers, but also those supportive of ‘Remain’. During the escapade, the Royal United Services Institute claims it was inundated by journalists enquiring about the relative military capacities of Britain and Spain. Fascinating though such comparisons might be, it is important to place this fracas into a broader (geo)political context. The interesting thing about the British-Spanish spat over Gibraltar is – paradoxically – not what it tells us about Gibraltar or relations between London and Madrid. Rather, it is what it tells us about Brexit.

In the upcoming negotiations, the European Union has a number of strengths in relation to the United Kingdom. One is its greater size and its established knowledge in negotiating trade deals. But it also has important weaknesses: unlike the United Kingdom, the European Union is not a unified political actor, but rather a collection of different competing institutions, as well as member states, each with their own respective agendas.

The easiest way for London to gain leverage is to identify cracks within the European Union, and exploit them creatively and carefully. Meanwhile, for Brussels, it is imperative to seal those cracks up and as quickly as possible. As Germany is now – with Britain’s looming departure – the dominant power within the European Union, Berlin will decide what cracks to close. Thus, Germany – in conjunction with the European Commission – will try to maintain a common European position, occasionally ‘whipping’ wayward European capitals into line.

Certain European countries have particular affinities with Britain, and particular reasons to accommodate London’s desires. Central and Eastern European nations, for instance, value the British contribution to their own security – threatened recently by Russian revisionism – and have their own suspicions about Berlin’s intentions or Brussels’ trajectory. But they are also net receivers of structural aid from the European Union, which they badly need to enhance their national infrastructure to compete against the wealthier economies, especially the German economy.

In any event, the main priority for Brussels, backed by Berlin, is to make sure that Western European countries do not break ranks with their established line. Here, aside from making departure difficult for Britain, part of the masterplan is to move towards a ‘multi-speed Europe’, as agreed recently by Germany, France, Italy and Spain at Versailles.

Multi-speed Europe’ is designed to allow the high priests of European integration, i.e., the Western Europeans, to integrate further, without troublesome countries like Poland and Hungary, as well as much of the rest of Eastern Europe. This move was already apparent shortly after the Brexit referendum, when the foreign ministers of the European Union’s six founding members caused a ruckus by getting together in Berlin to debate the future of European integration.

Spain is an interesting case in this context as it was a latecomer to the European project. Recently, a report by the Spanish government was leaked stating that Spain would suffer the most from a punitive European approach towards the United Kingdom. The reasons are manifold, and include the fact that Britain is the principal destination for Spanish foreign direct investment; key Spanish companies like Santander, Telefonica or Ferrovial have very strong positions in the British market. Further, hundreds of thousands of British pensioners live in Spain, and many more Britons visit the country regularly for their summer holidays, injecting billions of euros into the local economy.

Thus, Madrid wants to make the British withdrawal from the European Union as painless as possible and re-establish solid relations fast. This poses a problem for the negotiating strategy of Brussels and Berlin, as it reveals a potential crack in the common European line.

Enter Gibraltar. The more incendiary the statements coming out of London get, the more Spain is likely to fall behind a harder European line on Brexit. This is not to say that either Germany or the European Commission are entirely behind the Gibraltar episode. There are of course other factors at play, but there can be no doubt that Berlin and Brussels have gained tremendously from it in at least two important ways:

  1. By associating the British with aggression, they – including British ‘Remain’ supporters – have reinforced the false myth that the European Union’s dissolution would lead to a return of a warlike past, thereby frightening other Europeans to remain;
  2. By looking on as a political wedge has been driven between London and one of its most important potential European allies, Brussels and Berlin have succeeded in reducing the Iberian resistance, not only weakening Britain, but also reinforcing their influence over other member states, like Spain.

In short, the ugly fracas between two allies over Gibraltar is just one amongst the many Brexit-related episodes to come. Of course, Britain must support Gibraltar, but both London and Madrid, as well as other European capitals, must be careful not to walk into traps – whether deliberately laid or not – that could harm their national interests and weaken their hands.

– James Rogers is Co-Founder of European Geostrategy.