More Than Just a Rock
Gibraltar, a strategically important port and base in southern Spain, has been a British Overseas Territory since 1713, when Spain ceded it to the United Kingdom under the Treaty of Utrecht, which ended the War of the Spanish Succession. Madrid has long disputed British sovereignty over the Rock, but Gibraltar's inhabitants wished to remain under UK rule, decisively voting out the idea of Spanish sovereignty in 1967 and endorsing UK-Spanish authority in 2002.
At the same time, Gibraltar's 32,000 residents believe that Brexit, which would entail a hard border and thus end freedom of movement of persons and goods, would hurt their economy which is closely tied with neighbouring Spain. Nearly 12,000 Spanish workers cross the border into Gibraltar daily to work there, while the annual number of visitors is estimated at more than 12 million people.
No to Brexit (And to Spain's Claims)
So it didn't come as a surprise that back in 2016, nearly 95 percent of Gibraltarians voted to remain in the EU, unlike their fellow subjects in the UK. Support for remaining in the EU among residents of the exclave was more widespread than in Scotland (62%) and Northern Ireland (55.8%).
Soon after the vote, then-Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo reiterated the idea of sharing sovereignty over Gibraltar with Britain if the latter decided to leave the bloc — something that both the UK and the exclave flatly rejected.
Effectively, the idea of Brexit left the enclave between a rock and a hard place, as Gibraltar wished to remain part of the bloc while avoiding a Spanish grab on the territory. When Brussels proposed in March 2017 to grant Madrid the right of veto over any divorce deal that applies to Gibraltar, the enclave's Chief Minister Fabian Picardo lashed out at Donald Tusk, President of the European Council.
"Mr. Tusk, who has been given to using the analogies of the divorce and divorce petition, is behaving like a cuckolded husband who is taking it out on the children," Picardo said.
Threats to Veto the Brexit Deal
Since then, London and Brussels have made decisive progress in their protracted talks and have penned a draft agreement that includes a protocol on Gibraltar. However, Theresa May's efforts to seal a Brexit deal without Madrid's approval of the enclave's status have provoked strong opposition from Spain.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez threatened on Friday, after fruitless talks with Theresa May, to block the withdrawal deal unless it is amended to incorporate provisions for direct UK-Spanish negotiations on the Gibraltar issue.
"If there is no deal, it's obvious that what will happen is that [the summit of] the European Council will most likely not take place," he said.
His statement came ahead of Sunday's summit, where 27 EU leaders will meet to rubber-stamp the deal (which requires the unanimous approval of all EU members).
Shortly after, though, Spain's point man for the European Union, Luis Marco Aguiriano, indicated that a happy end may be near. According to him, London and Brussels have agreed to amend the political declaration that sets out the framework for future UK-EU relations, guaranteeing Spain's say on Gibraltar in future trade talks.
His comments have partly quelled fears that Spain could derail the EU summit, but until the declaration is published, there are still concerns about a no-deal scenario. Sunday's summit will show whether this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship between the UK and Spain or just a comma in a decades-long spat.