Gibraltar, the Spanish view: People hear Michael Howard and think ‘what the hell are you smoking?’

Gibraltar has been the subject of bellicose rhetoric from a number of high-profile British figures this past week

Gibraltar has been the subject of bellicose rhetoric from a number of high-profile British figures this past week

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Matthew Bennett, editor of the Spain Report and a long-time British expat in Murcia, spoke to us about his adopted country's disbelief at the furore surrounding Gibraltar. Read his answers to our questions below.

What was your initial reaction to the bellicose rhetoric coming out of Britain on Gibraltar?

When I read the comments by Michael Howard, Norman Tebbit and rear admiral Chris Parry, my first reaction was that it was completely bonkers.

That’s a fairly typical view: Spanish people have seen the war-mongering, the belligerent comments, and they think it’s crazy. Completely out of proportion.

Prior to these comments, there hadn’t been much reaction to Britain’s bullishness. The foreign minister in Spain had said Britain should calm down but wasn’t taunting the UK, he was simply trying to get Britain to cool off.

Surely there was anger in the wider community about the threats?

People might expect there to have been a major reaction in Spain, but sometimes with international stories the reaction in one country is completely different to another.

Something can be a non-story in Spain and a big story in the rest of the world, and vice versa. Gibraltar is definitely one such example.

When you see Gibraltar in the news here, you can normally tell we’re in what British journalists call the silly season, and what Spanish people call ‘the summer snake.’ Everyone’s on holiday and at the beach, so the journalists turn to non-stories to fill pages.

Gibraltar is the non-story to end all non-stories. Well, it is usually.

Do Spanish people genuinely want Gibraltar back?

People do care about Gibraltar, but only in a rhetorical sense.

Go for a coffee with someone here and they might casually throw in that Gibraltar is Spanish. But it’s a joke, a laugh in the pub, nothing more. It doesn’t go further than that.

Spain has tried to raise the subject in diplomatic conversation, but not even Franco tried to take Gibraltar back.

So when Spain put Gibraltar on the EU negotiation sheet, they wanted to score their diplomatic goal at the start of the Brexit match. It was celebrated in that way. But there was no talk of trashing Gibraltar, no thought of invading Gibraltar.

But now people hear Howard talking about war, and Parry talking about singeing the beard of the Spanish king. It’s come completely out of the blue.

Michael Howard has been among the most hawkish commentators on Gibraltar (Wikimedia)

What is the wider view of Britain?

Well sadly this only feeds into a wider view of Britain that’s been crystallising post-Brexit. Ask a typical Spanish person and they’ll tell you the whole idea of Brexit is stupid. Most Spanish people think Britain has shot itself in the foot by voting Leave.

Modern Spain is a very-pro European country, and has been since it became a democracy in the 1970s. Modern Spaniards can’t really imagine themselves not being European, there are no Eurosceptic parties here. No-one contemplates the idea of not being in Europe.

So there’s already an element of disbelief about what Britain has done. And there’s certainly some resentment at the British tourists who come over here, the ones who get plastered in Marbella and Magaluf, the ones who jump from one balcony to another and injure themselves. The amount of mockery directed towards British people has certainly increased, and Brexit only feeds into that.

But now people are reading a bunch of senior figures talking about something even more crazy – a military conflict with Spain. Given the size of the trade balance, the millions of tourists, the millions of residents in both countries, there’s no possible pretext for it.

Do people see what's happening in America and equate that with what's happening in the UK?

Some people over here might see this as part of a wider drift to the alt-right in the UK. I don’t think people equated Britain with America and Donald Trump before, but that might change now. Certainly a lot of people think Nigel Farage’s brand of politics is a bit extreme.

But the main reaction stemming from this week’s events is disbelief. People hear talk of war, talk of singeing the beard of the Spanish king, and they think: what the hell are those guys smoking?

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