April 3 (UPI) -- Spain and Britain are again contesting Gibraltar after a line in the EU's Brexit negotiating guidelines said decisions regarding the strategic property require Spanish consent.
Gibraltar, on a peninsula at the southern end of Spain and near the western end of the Mediterranean Sea, has been a British territory since 1713, a point of contention by Spain. A section of the Brexit negotiating guidelines, issued in anticipation of Britain's planned departure from the European Union, states that "After the United Kingdom leaves the union, no agreement between the EU and the United Kingdom may apply to the territory of Gibraltar without the agreement between the Kingdom of Spain and the United Kingdom."
The territory of 30,000 people is self-governing, except for reliance on Britain's defense and foreign policy. The EU statement, which suggests the sovereignty of Gibraltar will require Spanish approval for every internal matter, prompted a war of words between Spanish and British officials, as well as a threat of actual war by one.
While British officials restated a commitment to Gibraltar, former Conservative Party leader Lord Michael Howard noted that in 1982, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sent troops to the Falkland Islands after Argentina claimed the British territory; the conflict resulted in the deaths of 655 Argentinian and 255 British servicemen.
Howard added, "And I'm absolutely clear that our current woman prime minister [Theresa May] will show the same resolve in relation to Gibraltar as her predecessor did."
Spanish and British officials attempted to quiet the talk of war over Gibraltar.
"It seems someone is losing their cool," Alfonso Dastis, Spanish foreign minister, said, adding he was surprised by the "tone of comments coming out of Britain."
British leaders also calmed the threat but maintained that Gibraltar's affairs would not need Spanish approval.
A statement Sunday from May's office, following a telephone call to Fabian Picardo, Gibraltar's chief minister said that May "reiterated our long-standing position that the U.K. remains steadfastly committed to our support for Gibraltar, its people, and its economy. The prime minister said we will never enter into arrangements under which the people of Gibraltar would pass under the sovereignty of another state against their freely and democratically expressed wishes, nor will we ever enter into a process of sovereignty negotiations with which Gibraltar is not content."
In a 2002 referendum, 99 percent of Gibraltar voters said they preferred British, and not Spanish, rule.