Just occasionally, the front page of the UK tabloid the Sun provides the most telling insight into British politics. Such was the case in recent weeks, when doubts about the future of Gibraltar suddenly dominated the news.
The cause of the fuss was a document published by the European Council in response to the UK’s decision on March 29 to start the formal process of leaving the EU. The European Council’s draft guidelines stated that “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.”
In other words, Brexit gives Spain a new weapon in its centuries-old battle with the UK over the status of Britain’s overseas territory at the mouth of the Mediterranean. The Sun’s front page the following day reminded readers of the potential toxicity of this issue. Its March 30 headline “Up Yours Senors!” did not just reflect a particular form of jingoism. It also provided a conscious echo of a 1990 headline at a time when former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher was battling Jacques Delors, then president of the European Commission: “Up Yours Delors.”
On April 5, the Sun returned to the fray. It beamed a huge sign onto the side of Gibraltar’s massive rock: “Hands Off Our Rock.” The next day, the paper published a picture of this on its front page, alongside a headline adapting the words of the pro-Brexit actor Michael Caine in the 1969 movie The Italian Job: “We only want to blow the bloody senors off.”
The UK’s other pro-Brexit newspapers—the Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, and Daily Express—have displayed less flair, but their message has been no less brutal: Gibraltar is ours. Keep out. The British lion will not be messed around by you foreigners in Brussels and Madrid.
At one level, this all sounds like a hysterical overreaction to a minor issue. Just 32,000 people live in Gibraltar. Surely, their interests cannot override those of 65 million Britons and almost 510 million people living in the rest of the EU. Yet, just thirty-five years ago, the UK went to war to defend the autonomy of even fewer people when it sent a task force to the South Atlantic to end Argentina’s short-lived occupation of the Falkland Islands.
Now, as then, Britons may live from one decade to the next not thinking at all about these remnants of the UK’s imperial past; but voters can be roused all too easily when the occasion demands. For that reason, Gibraltar will matter in the months and years ahead. The Sun, and the other pro-Brexit papers, will both reflect and mobilize that sentiment.
More than that, the recent row over Gibraltar is likely to provide the template for other issues in the coming Brexit negotiations—and, in particular, the way discussion of those issues is likely to veer between a calm, objective analysis of the rules and the visceral emotions, never far below the surface, of many anti-Brussels Britons.
The calm, easily available facts about Gibraltar and Brexit are simply stated. No single country—Spain or any other—can veto the terms of the UK’s divorce from the EU. Under Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, those terms require the approval of a qualified majority of the remaining 27 EU member states. But in two other areas, the rules require unanimity: any move to extend the Brexit negotiations beyond the two years specified by the treaty; and the terms of any new, post-Brexit relationship between the UK and the EU.
Observers can debate the wisdom of the draft guidelines’ reference to Gibraltar, but those guidelines did not create the power of veto. They simply described a reality that was well-known to anyone who had bothered to study the rules. Most Gibraltarians long ago grasped the way Brexit would give Spain a huge bargaining chip. That is why as many as 96 percent of them voted to remain in the EU in Britain’s June 2016 referendum. If the Sun had really wanted to protect Gibraltar’s status, it too would have backed the Remain campaign last year.
Just in case anyone needed reminding of the way the unanimity rules can disrupt even the friendliest of negotiations, events last October made the point abundantly clear. The EU was about to sign a trade deal with Canada. The accord had taken years for the two sides to agree on. Every one of the EU’s 28 national governments was in favor. But in Belgium, Wallonia’s regional parliament objected; and under Belgium’s internal arrangements, this was enough to force the Belgian prime minister to say he could not yet sign the deal. The signing ceremony had to be postponed.
On October 27, a solution was scrambled together. The minicrisis passed but acted as a warning for the future. Spain is far bigger than Wallonia; and Gibraltar is a far tougher issue than farmers’ regulations. For the UK to bang a jingoistic drum and suggest that Britons should prepare for a Falklands-style war in the Mediterranean (as one former Conservative leader proposed) is absurd. This is not only because it invokes irrelevant parallels with Britain’s imperial and military past but also because the legal context is entirely different. Thatcher sent the naval task force to defeat an act of Argentinian aggression that plainly flouted international law. If Spain blocks a UK-EU deal because of Gibraltar, it might be morally wrong and economically stupid, but Madrid’s government would be acting within the legal rights accorded to each EU country by the EU treaty. International law would be on Spain’s side, not Britain’s.
The deeper point, however, is political, not legal. The coming months will see tough negotiations over Brexit, with false starts, late nights, and a need for calm voices, cool heads, and a willingness to compromise. British Prime Minister Theresa May and European Council President Donald Tusk both know this; indeed, when they met in London on April 6, they agreed to “lower tensions” on the really tricky issues—including Gibraltar.
But to do this, they must fight the impact of such headlines as “Up Yours Senors!” and “Hands Off Our Rock.” To be sure, this kind of journalism adds a certain panache, and even entertainment, to readers’ lives. But sustained day after day, it also incites the very emotions that make rational negotiations harder, and perhaps impossible.
Peter Kellner is a journalist, political commentator, and former president of YouGov.