LONDON (AP) — Britain sought Saturday to reassure Gibraltar that it will protect the territory’s interests in upcoming talks on exiting the European Union amid a dispute with Spain that underscores the complications of Britain’s EU divorce.
Spain has long sought to regain control of Gibraltar, an enclave of 32,000 people on the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula that was ceded to Britain in 1713.
On Friday, the EU suggested that Spain would get a veto over the territory’s future relationship with the trading bloc. Gibraltar reacted angrily to the EU position, saying Spain was using the U.K.’s departure from the EU to force negotiations that it has wanted on the status of the territory.
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson talked with Gibraltar’s chief minister, Fabian Picardo, on Friday to assure him of the U.K.’s support.
“As ever, the U.K. remains implacable and rock-like in our support for Gibraltar,” Johnson tweeted after the conversation.
British Prime Minister Theresa May failed to mention Gibraltar in her letter triggering formal negotiations on Britain’s departure from the EU — causing dismay in the territory.
The EU fueled that anxiety on Friday when it released a nine-page roadmap for the talks, which included a statement that no future agreement after Brexit between Britain and the bloc would apply to Gibraltar unless both the U.K. and Spain agreed.
The statement on Gibraltar is unique for the EU, which in other matters has called for the 27 remaining members to speak with one voice in talks with Britain.
Picardo expressed outrage at being singled out, describing the guidelines as “a disgraceful attempt by Spain to manipulate the European Council for its own narrow political interests.”
“What we are seeing is a clear manifestation of the predictably predatory attitude that we anticipated Spain would seek to abusively impose on its partners,” he said in a statement.
Although May has since insisted her support for Gibraltar remains firm, some analysts suggest the prime minister’s failure to mention the territory in her letter supports the idea that it is a colony, not an integral part of the U.K.
Christian Hernandez, president of the Gibraltar Chamber of Commerce, disagreed. Gibraltar became a member of the EU when Britain joined the bloc in 1973, and it is considered part of the U.K. for all matters relating to the EU, he told the BBC on Saturday.
“We have to trust that the British government is going to represent the interests of its British citizens in Gibraltar,” Hernandez said. “The British government now needs to stand firm in the face of Spanish bullying.”
The people of Gibraltar, who rely on an open border with Spain to fuel their economy, voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU during the referendum on Britain’s membership but also have similarly voted to stay in the U.K. They will be leaving the EU, however, because a majority in Britain voted to leave.
Several people in Gibraltar expressed little surprise Saturday at the EU document.
“I don’t think it was unexpected,” said retiree Derek Booth. “It’s only a draft document and if the British government are true to their word, then they will contest the statement.”
If the proposal on Gibraltar is accepted as the EU’s bargain position, it would increase Spain’s leverage in the debate over the enclave’s future.
The territory’s strategic location overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar, which links the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, has long made it an ideal location for military bases. Gibraltar is also a source of jobs for many Spaniards in the region, and Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis has pledged to ensure an open border.
Timothy Boswell, chairman of the House of Lords EU Committee, said May’s omission was “unfortunate,” because “the door has been opened for the EU to present it as a disputed territory, without a voice of its own in negotiations that will have profound implications for its future prosperity.”
Clare Moody, a member of the opposition Labour Party who represents Gibraltar and southwestern England in the European Parliament, said it was a “shock” that May didn’t mention the territory.
“If the government has overlooked the interests of Gibraltar, which is a crucial part of the constitutional arrangements of our membership of the EU, then what else are they going to overlook?” she asked on the BBC.