When he comes to assess Spain’s current stance on Gibraltar, Boris Johnson, Britain’s new Foreign Secretary, would do well to refresh his memory by looking at his own cuttings file.
Back in August of 2013, when Spain tightened the screws and the border ground to a standstill, Mr Johnson, then the mayor of London, penned an opinion piece for The Daily Telegraph in which he explained why any attempt to tinker with Gibraltar’s sovereignty was doomed to fail.
Gibraltarians, he wrote, are “almost hysterical” in their Britishness. In a nutshell, “they will never agree”.
“There are 98 per cent of Gibraltarians who want to be British, and as long as that is the case it is our absolute duty to protect them and their right to go about their lawful business, in accordance with EU law, without hassle from their neighbour,” he wrote.
The bit about EU law may become redundant in the months to come, but one would hope that Mr Johnson would stand by that sentiment as he settles into his new office in King Charles Street in Whitehall.
He will be under pressure from Madrid to do the opposite. Spain’s acting Foreign Minister, José Manuel García-Margallo, is intent on pushing joint sovereignty as the price of Gibraltar’s continued access to the EU.
In promoting that misplaced agenda, Spain will pull out all the stops in the coming months. Witness the inter-ministerial meeting in Madrid earlier this week, attended not just by representatives of the Mancomunidad de Municipios del Campo de Gibraltar, but by senior officials from Spain’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs; its Ministry of Defence; the Ministry of the Interior; and the Ministry for Public Works and Transport. Even Félix Sanz Roldán, the head of Spain’s National Intelligence Centre, was present at the meeting, which was chaired by Sr García-Margallo himself. The range and seniority of those present spoke volumes about how Spain views Gibraltar.
The presence of Spain’s intelligence chief at a discussion about Gibraltar raised eyebrows even among PSOE politicians who attended – and others, such as PSOE senator Salvador de la Encina, who were not invited – but it really should come as no surprise. In pursuing its sovereignty goal, Spain will deploy all its state machinery to pile on the pressure. Sr García-Margallo made that clear after the meeting. Brexit, he said, “is an opportunity” such as Spain has not had since the Treaty of Utrecht.
The Spanish minister, who months ago hinted at retirement but shows no sign of being ready to step aside just yet, is wasting his breath. The message from Gibraltar is loud and clear, and has been repeated ad infinitum. Gibraltar wants to retain its link to the EU and 96% of us voted as much last June 23. But only the Gibraltarians can decide Gibraltar’s future, and our sovereignty is not up for discussion. If Mr Johnson’s Telegraph article is anything to go by, that is something that he already understood clearly back in 2013. He will know that nothing has changed since then.
Britain’s new Foreign Secretary is not everyone’s cup of tea, admittedly. His prominent role in the Leave campaign makes it likely he will have few fans on the Rock, while reaction elsewhere to news of his appointment has ranged from astonishment to shock.
Mr Johnson’s French counterpart, Jean-Marc Ayrault, yesterday accused him of lying during the campaign to take Britain out of the EU. Shadow leader of the Commons Paul Flynn questioned whether the man who described Barack Obama as “part-Kenyan”, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the “wankerer from Ankara” and had to apologise to the people of Papua New Guinea for associating them with cannibalism possessed the “qualities of diplomacy and truthfulness” required in the role of Britain’s main ambassador to the world. Labour MP Kevin Brennan told the House of Commons that Mr Johnson’s appointment was “the most remarkable since the emperor Caligula appointed his horse as a senator”, while former Scottish first minister Alex Salmond described him as a “court jester”.
But we are where we are and Mr Johnson, whose new job includes responsibility for intelligence agency MI6, will receive plentiful support from seasoned Foreign Office officials. And let us not forget that he was elected mayor of London twice and travelled the world promoting the UK capital. From Gibraltar’s perspective, if his 2013 article is anything to go by, he at least has a pithy understanding of the issues facing this community.
The summer of that year was one of the worst Gibraltar had faced in recent memory. There were queues of up to six hours at the border, causing tailbacks and gridlock not just here but in La Linea too. Spain was unhappy with Gibraltar’s new artificial reef but for Mr Johnson – and most here would agree – it was plainly evident that the border crackdown was about something else.
“Forget all this palaver about a few concrete blocks that have been dumped in the sea,” he wrote at the time. “That isn’t why the Spanish are going back to the Franco–style blockade. This isn’t a row about fish.”
“I am afraid that this is a blatant diversionary tactic by Madrid, and though it would be ludicrous to compare the Rajoy government with the tyranny of General Galtieri and his invasion of the Falklands, the gambit is more or less the same.”
Mr Johnson, of course, is just one of several British ministers who will play a major role in determining what the future holds for Gibraltar.
Theresa May, Britain’s new Prime Minister, has already heard our case directly from Chief Minister Fabian Picardo and his deputy, Dr Joseph Garcia. Despite her incredibly busy schedule and the fast-changing political landscape in London, she was true to her word and kept a 20-minute appointment with the Gibraltar delegation on Wednesday, the first meeting she held in the Prime Minister’s office in the House of Commons, sandwiched between David Cameron’s last question session and Mrs May’s own swearing-in as Prime Minister. Mrs May started her new job with Gibraltar fresh on her mind, a signal that would not have gone unnoticed in Madrid.
Likewise David Davis, the new Minister for Brexit, is no stranger to Gibraltar. He served as Minister for Europe in John Major’s government between 1994 and 1997, and was said to have had a good relationship with the then Chief Minister, Joe Bossano. His will be the task of overseeing how the UK is disentangled from the EU, and what is put in place instead.
Another important player will be Dr Liam Fox, the new International Trade Secretary whose job it will be to secure trade deals for the UK. Dr Fox, also a Brexiteer, is a long-time friend of Gibraltar who, in the run-up to the EU referendum, called on David Cameron to reaffirm Gibraltar’s British sovereignty in the strongest terms. “The sovereignty of the people of Gibraltar has always been guaranteed by the United Kingdom,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr. “To pretend in any way, shape or form that that policy would change, whether we are in or outside the European Union, is inexcusable.”
But with EU foreign ministers scheduled to dine together on Sunday ahead of the EU foreign affairs council, it will be Mr Johnson who could be set for the first brush with Sr García-Margallo.
Yesterday, the US magazine The Atlantic described the “brash and flamboyant” Mr Johnson as “one of the more cosmopolitan figures on the world stage”, but also “one of the least diplomatic.” It will be interesting to see how the Foreign Secretary deals with his Spanish counterpart. Sr García-Margallo is not known for his diplomacy skills either.
Before that first encounter, let us hope Mr Johnson listens to the message from Gibraltar – and takes a short dive into the Telegraph’s archive.
“Madrid should be in no doubt as to the strength of British determination,” he wrote three years ago, as he described the UK’s support for Gibraltar.
Love him or hate him, let us trust that Boris – and Britain – will make that crystal clear in the weeks ahead.