EXCERPT | The Brexit Referendum and the Gibraltar Question
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EXCERPT | The Brexit Referendum and the Gibraltar Question

By Uğur Burç Yıldız and Anıl Çamyamaç
İzmir Kâtip Çelebi University, Turkey

Image Attribute: The Port of Gibraltar (Aerial View from the North West),  Source: Wikimedia Commons

Image Attribute: The Port of Gibraltar (Aerial View from the North West), 

Britain has always been a problematic partner for the EU since gaining membership in 1973. While other EU members were struggling to ensure ‘an ever closer union’, Britain preferred not to participate in the EU’s most important policies to promote further integration, such as the Economic and Monetary Union, introduced by the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, and the Schengen Convention. Britain’s most important general concern for remaining outside these initiatives stemmed from its traditional desire for flexible EU integration based on inter-governmentalism rather than any supra-nationalist transfer of national powers to EU institutions in Brussels. In the face of the financial crisis in European markets and increasing concerns in Britain over immigration, Prime Minister (PM) David Cameron announced in 2013 that he would hold a referendum on the country’s EU membership if he became PM again after the 2015 elections [1]. It has been claimed that domestic political calculations were actually the main reasons for this decision in that Cameron offered a referendum because he wanted to gain the votes of Eurosceptics in the UK Independent Party and reconcile factions within the Conservative Party before the 2015 general election [2] [3, pg.2]. In the May 2015 election, Cameron’s party received 36.9

percent of the votes to earn parliamentary 331 seats, which enabled Cameron to keep his post in 10 Downing Street. The victory was attributed to the Tories’ good economic performance and Cameron’s promise of an EU referendum [4]. The latter was extremely important for Eurosceptics, who were obsessed with protecting Britain’s national sovereignty against Brussels-based policy-making.

On February 20, 2016, Cameron managed to win very important concessions from the EU with the signing of the Britain-EU Agreement, which provided that Britain would not be bound to participate in any future federal Europe. The agreement stipulated that “It is recognized that the United Kingdom, in the light of the specific situation it has under Treaties, is not committed to further political integration into the European Union. The substance of this will be incorporated into Treaties at the time of their next revision.” This clearly meant a ‘never closer union’ for Britain. Cameron claimed that the agreement gave Britain a “special status” in the EU and called on the British people to decide whether to remain in the EU after this move or leave [5]. During the referendum campaign, Cameron sided with the ‘no’ campaigners, repeatedly reminding voters that the February 2016 Agreement meant that Britain no longer had to participate in EU-led policies. However, the referendum, which took place on June 23, 2016, resulted in a majority supporting Britain’s exit from the EU with 51.8 percent of the vote. Soon after the referendum, Cameron resigned, having undoubtedly sealed his place in history as a politician who gambled the future of Britain for his own domestic political calculations.

Brexit will have wide-ranging and varied consequences for Britain and the EU. The most important questions for Britain are as follows: What kind of economic cooperation model will be preferred by Britain to replace the common market? How will British people use the right of free movement of people? Will Scotland and Northern Ireland want independence from the UK? [3, pp. 49-58] While discussions have focused on these uncertainties, Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel Garcia-Margallo’s proposal to Britain to hold negotiations on joint control of Gibraltar reignited the long-standing dispute (Reuters, 2016). Meanwhile, in late March 2017, the EU surprisingly sided with Spain, having previously remained impartial on the Gibraltar question, by incorporating the following article in its draft guidelines for the Brexit negotiations: “After the United Kingdom leaves the Union, no agreement between the EU and the United Kingdom may apply to the territory of Gibraltar without the agreement between the Kingdom of Spain and the United Kingdom” (Article 24) [6]. In doing so, the EU has given Spain a veto right over Gibraltar’s future relations with the Union.

Spain’s claims and the EU’s attitude annoyed Britain. For example, Michael Howard, a former Tory leader, reminisced about PM Margaret Thatcher’s war against Argentina to defend the freedom of English-speaking people in the Falkland Islands, and continued by stating that he was absolutely sure that current PM Theresa May “would show the same resolve in standing by the people of Gibraltar” [7]. Michael Fallon, British Defense Secretary implied the same threat: “We are going to look after Gibraltar – it is going to be protected all the way because the sovereignty of Gibraltar cannot be changed without the people of Gibraltar” [8]. While the seriousness of such statements is debatable, as a result of the escalating row, Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis, who took office in November 2016, had to ask Britain to calm down [9].

The EU’s Brexit negotiation guidelines, which it approved on April 29, 2017, [10] fully satisfied the Spanish government, which has long sought shared sovereignty over Gibraltar. As Inigo Mendez de Vigo, a spokesman for the Spanish government, put it, “It is what we wanted and what we have said from the beginning … The recognition by the European Union of the legal and political situation that Spain has defended fully satisfied us” [11].

About the Author:

Assitant Prof. Uğur Burç Yıldız, İzmir Kâtip Çelebi University, Turkey.

Asssitant Prof. Anıl Çamyamaç, İzmir Kâtip Çelebi University, Turkey.

Cite this Article:

Uğur Burç Yıldız, Anıl Çamyamaç, "Explaining the European Union’s Changing Position towards the Gibraltar Question after the Brexit Referendum"Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences,  Vol 8, No 4 S1 (2017), Pg: 23-24, http://www.mcser.org/journal/index.php/mjss/article/view/10009 | ISSN 2039-9340(Print) ISSN 2039-2117(Online) , DOI: 10.5901/mjss.2017.v8n4s1p21 


[1] Euronews. (2013). øngiltere AB’den ayrÕlÕyor mu? January 23, [Online] Available: http://tr.euronews.com/2013/01/23/ingiltere-abde-cikmaya-mi-hazirlaniyor/ (April 2, 2013).

[2] Stanley, T. (2016). David Cameron has made this a referendum on his future: We will find out soon if he will
have to pay the price. The Telegraph, June 23, [Online] Available:
(May 1, 2017). 

[3] Glencross, A. Why the UK voted for Brexit: David Cameron’s great miscalculation. London: Palgrave Macmillan. (2016).

[4] UK election 2015: PM David Cameron, conservatives win surprise majority. May 7, [Online]
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[5] EU deal gives UK special status, says David Cameron. February 20, [Online] Available:
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[6] EU draft guidelines for Brexit annotated- what they say and what they mean. March 31,[Online] Available: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/ng-interactive/2017/mar/31/eu-brexit-draftguidelines-annotated
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[7] Gibraltar tensions bubble over into British war talk. April 2, [Online] Available:
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[8] Warning Theresa May ‘would go to war’ to defend Gibraltar as Defense Secretary Michael
Fallon vows to ‘protect’ its sovereignty ‘all the way’. April 2, [Online] Available:
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4372666/Fallon-vows-defend-Gibraltar-way.html (May 7, 2017). 

[9]  Spain tells Britain to calm down over Gibraltar. April 3, [Online] Available:
http://www.euronews.com/2017/04/03/spain-tells-britain-to-calm-down-over-gibraltar (May 7, 2017). 

[10] European Council (Art. 50) guidelines for Brexit negotiations. April 29, [Online]
Available: http://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2017/04/29-euco-brexit-guidelines/
(May 6, 2017).

[11] EU offers Spain veto right over Gibraltar in Brexit talks. March 31, [Online] Available:
http://www.reuters.com/article/us-britain-eu-gibraltar-idUSKBN1722AS (May 6, 2017).