Readers will remember, both from last year’s exhaustive debate and from my recap last week, that the key stumbling block to the smooth resolution of the Brexit saga was the position of Northern Ireland. Because it shares a land border with a European Union member state, it was impossible to both treat it in a uniform fashion with the rest of the United Kingdom and preserve frictionless trade across that border.
The British government is still trying to square that particular circle. Its bill to give itself power to override the EU withdrawal agreement passed its second reading in the House of Commons last night. In the meantime, another front has opened up, with concerns about the status of the British territory of Gibraltar.
Like Northern Ireland, Gibraltar abuts an EU member, namely Spain. Like Northern Ireland it is used to having an open border, with goods and people (despite the occasional dispute) moving freely across it. And, not coincidentally, it also voted strongly to remain in the EU in the 2016 referendum.
How to keep the border open is one of the things that talks between Britain and the EU are supposed to address. Spain, however, is keen to use the opportunity to increase its influence in Gibraltar – and for once, it and the Gibraltar government are on the same side.
Almost a year ago, Gibraltar’s chief minister, Fabian Picardo, won re-election on a promise to deal with the consequences of the then-anticipated “no deal” Brexit. That didn’t happen: instead, Boris Johnson reached a last-minute deal with the EU, with which he then won an election in December. But that deal didn’t remove the threat, it just kicked the can a bit further down the road.
In January, Picardo suggested that Gibraltar should join the Schengen zone, which provides for free movement of people across most of the EU, including Spain (but not Ireland or the UK). Last week Politico reported that Spain has proposed the same idea in the current negotiations, in an effort to be credited with “shared responsibility” for the territory.
The big difference between the two cases is that there is already a large body of opinion in Northern Ireland that supports union with Ireland, which would result in it automatically rejoining the EU. It’s by no means impossible that Brexit difficulties will result in that becoming the majority view in the province.
But the Gibraltans are dead set against joining Spain, which lost the territory to Britain more than three hundred years ago. In 2002, 99% voted against a proposal for joint sovereignty between Britain and Spain. They are keen for good relations with their larger neighbor, but not at the price of giving up being British. And Johnson, with his nostalgia for old-fashioned imperial greatness, is probably the last British leader who would want to give them up.
On the other hand, there is no equivalent to the symbolic significance of a customs border running down the Irish Sea. Gibraltar’s trade with Spain and the rest of the EU is enormously greater than its trade with Britain; if the latter becomes marginally more difficult as a result of closer relations with the EU, the Gibraltans will probably take that in their stride.
As Picardo noted, microstates such as Liechtenstein, Monaco and San Marino are able to function as (either officially or de facto) part of the Schengen zone without being members of the EU. There seems no logical reason why Gibraltar couldn’t do the same.
As usual, politics matters. The 2002 referendum was held under a centre-right Gibraltar government (confusingly called the Social Democrats), at a time when Spain also was also governed by the centre-right. Rival nationalists tend not to get on. But Picardo, in power since 2011, represents a centre-left coalition, and with the Socialists also back in office in Spain there is clearly a more conciliatory tone to their relationship.
And neither of them will have any particular qualms about making life difficult for Johnson and the Tories.