Spain’s foreign minister Alfonso Dastis has said his government is “surprised” at the tone of commentary in the UK over Gibraltar, after a weekend in which former Tory leader Michael Howard suggested Britain could go to war to defend the territory.
“I think that someone in the UK is losing their temper and there’s no reason for that,” said Mr Dastis, as he sought to play down the tensions generated by a condition in the European Council’s draft negotiating guidelines on Brexit.
The condition in effect gives Spain a veto on any future UK-EU trade deal that affects Gibraltar, which has been in British hands for 300 years.
“We are a little surprised at the tone this has generated in the UK, a country characterised historically for its composure,” Mr Dastis said at the opening ceremony of an economic forum in Madrid. “In this case, the traditional British composure has been notable for its absence.”
David Davis, Brexit minister, met Mr Dastis in Madrid on Monday for what Downing Street insisted were “long-scheduled” talks. The talks covered Gibraltar and wider Brexit issues and were said to have been “very friendly and constructive”.
Downing Street hopes the Gibraltar clause will be excluded from the final EU negotiating guidelines to be agreed later this month, but Theresa May’s spokesman admitted it was purely a matter for the EU: “These are draft guidelines,” he said.
Asked whether the prime minister might emulate Margaret Thatcher by sending a task force to defend Gibraltar, Mrs May’s spokesman said: “That’s not going to happen.” But he said she would show “resolve” to defend the Rock’s interests.
On Monday, Gibraltar chief minister Fabian Picardo compared European Council president Donald Tusk to a “cuckolded husband” for inserting the Gibraltar condition in the EU Brexit negotiating 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 in an interview with Reuters in which he also called for the EU to drop the reference to Gibraltar from the guidelines.
Mr Picardo on Sunday told the Financial Times that 12,000 workers, mostly Spanish, crossed the territory’s border every day. “This is why it is in everyone’s interest that there should be a sensible, orderly and well managed Brexit between Spain and Gibraltar,” he said.
Mr Dastis seemed to make a nod towards these workers in his comments on Monday. “We are not in favour of raising tariffs or making the relationship more difficult with the UK and the citizens of Gibraltar,” he said, adding that Spain’s goal was to defend the interests of its citizens who live near, and work in, the territory.
The foreign minister also repeated the Spanish view, made explicit over the weekend, that Spain did not want to see Scotland secede from the UK but would not necessarily veto a Scottish application for EU membership if it did pursue independence.
“Our position is clear. When the UK leaves the EU, it leaves in its entirety. Our desire is that outside of the EU it remains whole. Spain does not defend fragmentation or secession,” Mr Dastis said. “More than that, I won’t speculate about possibilities.”
In an interview published by Spain’s El País newspaper on Sunday, Mr Dastis said he did “not foresee that we would block” a Scottish membership application.
Removal of the spectre of an outright Spanish veto will sharply change the terms of debate over EU membership if the Scottish National party succeeds in its push for a second independence referendum by spring 2019.
During campaigning ahead of Scotland’s 2014 referendum, campaigners against independence frequently cited the likelihood of a Spanish veto as evidence that leaving the UK could mean being shut out of the EU as well.
Spain has stressed the differences between Scottish independence and secessionist pressures in its own region of Catalonia, saying in 2014 that it was willing to consider an eventual application to join the EU by an independent Scotland.
Mr Dastis said the Scottish case was “not comparable” with Catalonia, citing constitutional differences between the UK and Spain.
Referring to the comments, SNP MP Stephen Gethins said: “We can now be absolutely clear: there is no intention of a Spanish veto over Scotland’s EU membership.”
Mike Russell, Scotland’s minister for Brexit negotiations, said Mr Dastis’s statement would help to end “misinformation” about Spain’s position on Scottish EU membership.
The SNP has backed away from past arguments that Scotland would be able to seamlessly retain EU membership on independence, claims that had been directly rejected by the European Commission and Madrid.
The new intervention by Mr Dastis comes at a time when the SNP is trying to balance its stated goal of EU membership with a desire to maximise backing for independence among the many Scots — including an estimated one-third of SNP supporters — who voted for Brexit.