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War of words: Britain’s pro-Brexit press fans flames in Gibraltar row

UK’s Sun newspaper labels Spaniards 'donkey rogerers' as political storm over territory continues

The Sun, Britain’s top-selling newspaper and a fervent supporter of Brexit, has taken aim at Spain over the country’s long-standing claim on Gibraltar with a front-page headline on Tuesday that misspells señores: “Up yours senors!” – a reference to its legendary 1990 “Up yours Delors!” front page in response to the then president of the European Commission’s perceived attempts to impose European federalism on the United Kingdom.

The front page of the pro-Brexit UK newspaper 'The Sun' on April 4th.
The front page of the pro-Brexit UK newspaper 'The Sun' on April 4th.

Inside its “Gibraltar Campaign” edition, readers of the Rupert Murdoch-owned paper were given a special pullout poster with a photograph featuring a young woman waving a Union Jack in front of Gibraltar and bearing the legend: “Hands off our Rock”

The Sun spelled out its position over the British Overseas Territory ceded by Spain to Britain in 1713 under the Treaty of Utrecht in a column in which it said: “Of course Britain shouldn’t go to war with Spain over Gibraltar. But nor will we sit quietly while Madrid launches its latest ridiculous attempt to claim the territory.” Opposite the column in the print edition appeared a series of nude photographs of Australian actress Nicole Kidman.

That said, the tone of Tuesday’s edition is more moderate than Monday’s, when former editor Kelvin MacKenzie described Spaniards as “donkey rogerers.”

In a piece headlined “The Spanish are off their Rioja over Gibraltar…so let’s put up a good ol’ British fight,” MacKenzie then calls on the UK government to increase defense spending, while proposing a series of measures to bring Madrid to heel. Among them is imposing a tax on Rioja wine, denying Scotland fishing quotas to Spain, saying “Adiós, Manuel” to the 125,000 Spaniards working in the United Kingdom, cancelling the state visit by King Felipe and Queen Leticia, and telling “the 12 million Brits who head to Spain each year not to bother. All Spanish flights are denied airspace.”

Former Sun Kelvin MacKenzie editor called for Spaniards living in the UK to be sent home

Some of Britain’s broadsheets have also joined in the fray. After former Conservative Party leader Michael Howard suggested to UK broadcaster Sky News that Prime Minister Theresa May would be prepared to go to war with Spain over Gibraltar, as her predecessor Margaret Thatcher did 35 years ago “with another Spanish-speaking country,” the Daily Telegraph undertook a review of Britain’s military capacity.

The Royal Navy, concluded the conservative newspaper, is “far weaker” than it was during the Falklands War of 1982 against Argentina. Rear Admiral Chris Parry, a former director of operational capability at the UK Ministry of Defence, was cited as recommending that the government invest “appropriately” in Britain’s military capacity “if it wants to talk big” over Gibraltar.

Parry, who served in the Falklands campaign, suggested Spain “learn from history” warning that Britain could “cripple” Spain militarily and still “singe the King of Spain’s beard,” a reference to the defeat of the Spanish Armada that attempted to invade Britain in 1588.

Such is the mood in some quarters in Britain, barely days after May formally triggered the country’s withdrawal from the European Union. The Prime Minister, speaking during a visit to Jordan and Saudi Arabia, made a plea for calm and ruled out any kind of armed conflict.

The Sun gave readers a free poster bearing the words “Hands off our Rock!”

Not all the British press has joined in the jingoism. But the reaction to Gibraltar has served, once again, to highlight the split that Brexit has produced in British society, with a substantial part of the population looking on in horror at their compatriots’ call to arms.

Giles Tremlett, a former correspondent for The Guardian and author of a number of books on Spain, writes in the paper about 500 years of rivalry between Britain and Spain. He argues that: “Spain is now the one most enamored of Britain. It wants a soft Brexit. It owns British banks, tolerates drunken tourists and is happy to have large populations of English people who do not speak its language – some of them undocumented, so much like illegal immigrants – on its coasts.”

Spain wants Gibraltar back, notes Tremlett. “This does not mean it is about to invade. In fact, all it wants is a veto on future deals between Gibraltar and the EU.” Highlighting the irony that The Sun and others ignore, he concludes: “Thanks to Brexit, it now has that.”

Gibraltar protests presence of Spanish patrol boat in disputed waters

A view of the port of Gibraltar.
A view of the port of Gibraltar. ATLAS

Authorities in Gibraltar lodged an official complaint on Tuesday over the presence of a Spanish navy vessel in disputed waters close to the British Overseas Territory. The Spanish Foreign and Defense ministries said the Infanta Cristina patrol boat was taking part in “routine monitoring of maritime areas under Spanish sovereignty.”

Incidents of this kind are frequent in the waters off Gibraltar, but Tuesday’s protest comes at a time of heightened tension following the UK’s recent triggering of its withdrawal process from the EU. Brussels has confirmed Spain’s right to veto extending any trade agreement with the Rock once Britain leaves the EU by March 2019 at the latest.

Gibraltar is fearful that Spain will take advantage of Brexit to pursue its long-standing claim on the territory and its population of 32,000 people, and London has guaranteed its support. Spain has expressed surprise at Britain’s tone, with Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, calling on London to “keep calm and negotiate.”

Gibraltar’s Chief Minister, Fabian Picardo, tweeted that the Spanish navy’s Infanta Cristina had “illegally” entered British territorial waters off Gibraltar. Spain says the waters are not part of the agreement by which it ceded Gibraltar to Britain in 1713 under the Treaty of Utrecht.

A spokesman for the Defense Ministry told Europa Press that the Spanish navy has a patrol ship stationed for most of the year to monitor Spanish waters from the Alboran Sea to the Gulf of Cadiz, which are separated by the Strait of Gibraltar. On Tuesday, the Infanta Cristina came within a mile of the coast of Gibraltar, prompting the Royal Navy to send a patrol vessel to escort it out of the disputed waters.

The United Kingdom claims an exclusion zone of three miles around Gibraltar, while Spain claims the waters. Madrid only recognizes British sovereignty on waters within the port of Gibraltar.

English version by Nick Lyne.

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