Be a good little colony and co-operate

There we have it. Spain wants to put the clock back and get the world at large, or at least the European Union, to start calling Gibraltar a colony again.

It would be easy to dismiss as sour grapes Madrid’s latest move, which would see a proposed EU law on visa-free travel classify Gibraltar as “a colony of the British Crown”: an act of petulance by Pedro Sánchez after he failed to secure a clause in the Brexit withdrawal agreement that would have enabled him to veto the application of any future UK/EU trade agreement to Gibraltar.

But there’s probably more to it than that.

According to reports, the Spanish government would expect the “colony” epithet to be used in all EU legislation regarding the UK after Brexit. So what, you might say? Sticks and stones and all that. But our chief minister immediately identified a potential long-term danger: if people think of Gibraltar as a colony they’ll be more likely to concur with Spain that the Rock should be decolonised in accordance with the principle of territorial integrity rather than going down the route of respecting the right to self-determination of its inhabitants.

I find it ironic though not surprising that even as Spain continues to do all it can to further its sovereignty ambitions, Gibraltar is expected to act as a good neighbour and co-operate. Witness the withdrawal agreement’s Gibraltar protocol and its associated memoranda of understanding.

These documents would oblige our government, among other things, to reduce the retail price of tobacco products, which would be linked with the price of equivalent products in Spain, and adopt a tax system aimed at “preventing fraudulent activities”, not just in respect of tobacco but alcohol and petrol as well. Gibraltar would be required to “achieve full transparency in tax matters”, therefore implicitly acknowledging some degree of opacity. And a committee with Madrid central government representation would be appointed to assess the environmental impact of things like (surprise, surprise) land reclamation and bunkering. It would also discuss “fishing activities”.

As I was writing this column I stumbled upon a Financial Times article from last September. It suggested that whereas it was envisaged that the withdrawal agreement would contain protocols on Northern Ireland and Cyprus there were no plans for one on Gibraltar. That idea was mooted by the Spanish government and went “beyond the original plans of EU negotiators”.

Small wonder that Spain is now anxious that the protocol and memoranda should survive a withdrawal agreement rejection, with foreign minister Josep Borrell claiming that even if Britain leaves the EU without a deal, agreements over Gibraltar would remain in place. Fabian Picardo has rejected this view insisting that without a withdrawal agreement the MoUs are not legally effective, but in these uncertain times no one can say for certain what would happen. What’s more, if the EU agrees to reopen negotiations on the Irish backstop Madrid may well demand that it do likewise over Gibraltar.

I remain convinced that the best outcome for us is that MPs stick to their guns and reject Theresa May’s deal each time she submits it to a vote in the Commons. That way we may end up with a second referendum and a vote to remain in the EU, which would render the Gibraltar protocol and everything else academic.