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Why Britain just (briefly) threatened to go to war with Spain

How do you say “wag the dog” in British?

People lie on a beach as the Rock of Gibraltar looms behind on June 23, 2016, in La Linea de la Concepcion, Spain.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Britain just kinda, sorta, maybe threatened to go to war with Spain.

After Britain’s stunning Brexit vote last summer, the 30,000 or so residents of the tiny British territory of Gibraltar voted overwhelmingly to remain in the European Union, with 95.9 percent casting their ballots to stay in the EU. Shortly after the vote results were announced, Madrid — which has long believed that the territory rightfully belongs to Spain — called for joint sovereignty over Gibraltar.

That hasn’t played well with British politicians — and some are now publicly threatening actual war with Spain.

British Defense Secretary Sir Michael 
Fallon suggested on Sunday that Britain is ready to use military force to defend the sovereignty of Gibraltar, vowing to go “all the way” to protect the territory.

Former Conservative leader Michael Howard, during an interview on Sunday with Britain’s Sky News, went even further, declaring that Prime Minister Theresa May would defend Gibraltar with the same resolve that Margaret Thatcher had when she sent British troops to war with Argentina in 1982 over the Falkland Islands. The 10-week conflict, in which the British were ultimately victorious, left more than 900 dead.

“Thirty-five years ago this week, another woman prime minister sent a task force halfway across the world to defend the freedom of another small group of British people against another Spanish-speaking country,” Howard said, “and I’m absolutely certain that our current prime minister will show the same resolve in standing by the people of Gibraltar.”

Prime Minister May, though, seemed to laugh off questions about whether the UK would take military action against Spain to defend Gibraltar, telling reporters on Monday that she prefers “jaw-jaw” to “war-war.”

“What we’re doing with all European countries in the European Union is sitting down and talking to them. We’re going to be talking to them about getting the best possible deal for the United Kingdom and for those countries, Spain included,” she said.

The fact that a British prime minister has to back away from talk about war over Gibraltar is pretty stunning. Here’s what’s going on.

Gibraltar has been a British territory for 300 years

Gibraltar is a 2.5-square-mile peninsula at the tip of Spain that has been under British control for more than 300 years. And Spain really wants it back.

Map of Gibraltar and Spain.
The Heritage Foundation

British and Dutch forces captured Gibraltar from Spain in 1704 during the War of the Spanish Succession, and Spain ceded Gibraltar to Britain in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht at the end of the war. Gibraltar has remained under British control ever since, despite Spain’s multiple attempts to take it back.

The majority of Gibraltarians, however, are British citizens who hold British passports and who adamantly do not want to be part of Spain.

In a referendum held in 1967, Gibraltarians voted overwhelmingly to remain a British dependency. The subsequent UK grant of autonomy in 1969 led Spain to close its border with Gibraltar and sever all communication links. It wasn’t until 1985, ahead of Spain’s accession to the EU, that Spain finally reopened the border.

In 2002, the people of Gibraltar voted in a referendum on whether the UK and Spain should share sovereignty — and again, Gibraltarians overwhelmingly voted to remain under the sole control of the Brits.

Gibraltarians want to be part of the UK and the EU

The vast majority of Gibraltarians were in favor of the UK staying in the EU in large part because of the economic prosperity being part of the EU has brought them.

But they also wanted the UK to stay in the EU because they feared if the UK voted to leave, Spain would immediately try to reassert its claim to Gibraltar. Indeed, those fears seem to have been justified. Spain’s acting foreign minister at the time, José Manuel García-Margallo, warned that his country would demand control of Gibraltar the "very next day" after a British vote to exit the EU.

And sure enough, just one day after the Brexit vote, García-Margallo called for joint sovereignty over the rock, proclaiming that “[t]he Spanish flag on the Rock is much closer than before.”

In the wake of this most recent spat, Spain’s current foreign minister, Alfonso Dastis, suggested it’s the British politicians, not the Spaniards, who are overreacting, and he accused the British ministers of “losing their composure.”

When asked by reporters if she had indeed lost her cool over Gibraltar, May responded, “No, our position on Gibraltar has not changed. We are very clear that we support Gibraltar, we’re working with the Government of Gibraltar and will continue to do so.”

“We want to negotiate the best possible deal for the UK and the best possible deal for Gibraltar,” said May. “When we negotiate the final [Brexit] deal … there will be 27 member states of the remaining EU that will have to agree that deal with us. But I’m confident that when it comes to agreeing that deal, they’ll see that a good deal for the UK is good for them and good for us. And I think that at the end of the day it’s that that will win through.”

The question now is whether the rest of her government agrees.

*Correction: A previous version of this article misattributed the quote about British ministers “losing their composure” to Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. It was actually Alfonso Dastis, the Spanish Foreign Minister, who made that comment.

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