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Theresa May laughs off Gibraltar war talk

LiveMint logoLiveMint 03-04-2017 Alex Morales

Jordan/Madrid: UK Prime Minister Theresa May laughed off the suggestion she’d go to war over Gibraltar and said any dispute about the tiny British territory at the southern tip of Spain will be resolved through dialogue.

The issue flared up after Michael Howard, a former leader of May’s Conservatives, suggested on Sunday that Britain would fight with Spain to defend the rock. The UK’s withdrawal from the European Union raises concerns about the status of Gibraltar and those questions were laid bare on Friday when the EU’s negotiating guidelines gave Spain an effective veto over whether any post-Brexit deal would also apply to the territory.

Spain urged the UK on Monday to keep its cool and May also moved to defuse tensions. She threw her head back and let out a laugh when asked about it by reporters on a plane en route to the Middle East.

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“What we’re doing with all European countries in the European Union is sitting down and talking to them,” May said. Pressed on whether the policy is “jaw-jaw rather than war-war,” she responded that “it’s definitely jaw-jaw.”

The spat over Gibraltar is yet another example of how thorny Brexit talks will be, with battles forming over the size of the bill, how to treat the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland and even on the order of the negotiations themselves.

“Our position on Gibraltar has not changed; we are very clear that we continue to support Gibraltar, we’re working with the government of Gibraltar and will continue to do so,” May said. “We want to negotiate the best possible deal for the UK and the best possible deal for Gibraltar.”

Howard, who led the Conservative Party from 2003 to 2005, upped the rhetoric Sunday when he made a comparison between the tussle with Spain and the 1982 Falklands War between the UK and Argentina.

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“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 told Sky News. “I’m absolutely certain that our current prime minister will show the same resolve in standing by the people of Gibraltar.”

His tone was seized on by elements of the UK press. The Telegraph interviewed military experts on the relative size of the two countries’ naval forces and concluded that even a reduced Royal Navy “could still cripple Spain.” The Sun headlined its story “Spain gets a Brexocet,” in a reference to the Exocet missiles used during the Falklands war.

‘Out of context’

But Spanish foreign minister Alfonso Dastis, who had dinner Sunday with Brexit Secretary David Davis, told reporters in Madrid Monday that ‘‘comparing Gibraltar with the Falklands is taking things out of context.” Britain “is a country known for its restraint,” Dastis said. “On this particular issue, their restraint is conspicuous by its absence.”

May’s spokesman, Greg Swift, told reporters in London that Howard’s suggestion that a Falklands-style naval task force could be sent to Gibraltar “isn’t going to happen.” EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg took note of the episode, and one of them found it particularly revealing.

“I would say on Gibraltar, you see now how difficult the divorce is,” the Netherlands’ Bert Koenders told reporters. “Let’s be cool and carry on and not use too harsh language,” he said. “Let’s just negotiate, I think that’s most important.”Bloomberg

Robert Hutton and Richard Bravo also contributed to this story.

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