'Jaw-jaw' not war-war with Spain, Theresa May insists
Prime Minister Theresa May has insisted that Britain's relations with Spain remain on a basis of "jaw-jaw", after a predecessor as Conservative leader suggested she might be ready to resort to war to defend Gibraltar.
After an EU document suggested that Spain would be given a say 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."
“But it’s clear that on this question of Europe – and Gibraltar is just a manifestation of that issue – the traditional British composure is noticeable for its absence.”
He later added: “I think some people in the UK are losing their temper but there’s no need for that.”
Sr 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 Gibraltar’s 32,000 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," Mr Picardo said.
Yesterday the Chief Minister discussed the situation in a telephone with Joseph Muscat, the Prime Minister of Malta, which currently holds the presidency of the EU. No details of the conversation were made public, however.
In a separate development, Mr Picardo was critical of European Council president Donald Tusk for allowing Gibraltar’s inclusion in the EU draft guidelines.
“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,” Mr Picardo said.
“We are not going to be a chip and we are not going to be a victim of Brexit as we are not the culprits of Brexit: we voted to stay in the European Union so taking it out on us is to allow Spain to behave in the manner of the bully.”
Mr Picardo also urged the EU to remove the reference to Gibraltar from the draft guidelines.
“Removal of the reference to Gibraltar would be a sign of good faith and good will,” he said.
Britain’s Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, speaking to reporters in Brussels yesterday morning, repeated the UK’s sovereignty commitment to Gibraltar.
“I think the position of the [UK] government is very, very clear, and that is the sovereignty of Gibraltar is unchanged and it’s not going to change, and it cannot conceivably change without the express support and consent of the people of Gibraltar and the United Kingdom,” he said.
“That is not going to change.”
Lord Howard's comments were raised in the House of Lords, where the foreign minister was called on to "distance herself" from the idea that the UK could go to war with Spain.
Responding, Baroness Anelay of St Johns said: "We do still have free speech in this country, may that long continue."
Opposition spokesman Lord Collins of Highbury was critical of the "unhelpful remarks about gunboat diplomacy".
He said the people of Gibraltar did not doubt Britain's commitment to maintain their sovereignty, but added: "What they doubt is Britain's ability to negotiate on their behalf the best deal economically, and that's what they want to hear from this Government."
Lady Anelay said: "We take extremely seriously the importance of negotiating the best outcome for the whole of the UK family - that includes Gibraltar."
Lord Hannay of Chiswick, an independent crossbencher and former British ambassador to the EU, took a sideswipe at those who campaigned for Brexit, which included Lord Howard.
He said: "Does the minister not feel that the last people to give advice on this matter are the people who have caused the problem?”
"Those who incited the electorate of this country to leave the European Union, without which Gibraltar's situation would be perfectly and totally secure?"
Lady Anelay said: "The position of Gibraltar is as secure today as it was on June 23."