MADRID: Spain’s acting prime minister took a swipe today at his British counterpart David Cameron who is due in Gibraltar to campaign against Brexit in a “historic” trip, telling him to stay home.
The tiny British overseas territory nestled on the southern tip of Spain has long been a source of friction between London and Madrid, which wants it to come back under its control centuries after it was ceded to Britain in 1713.
Cameron’s visit later today will be the first by a British prime minister since 1968 and comes at a time of deep concern on the Rock, which fears that a vote to exit the European Union in next week’s referendum will leave it at the mercy of Spain.
“The government doesn’t like it that Mr Cameron is going to Gibraltar,” acting prime minister Mariano Rajoy told Spanish radio.
“What is being debated is whether the United Kingdom stays in the European Union — as I hope it will — or leaves the European Union.
“The campaign for this should be done in the United Kingdom and not in Gibraltar.”
He added that whatever happened in the June 23 referendum, “for Spain, Gibraltar remains Spanish.”
The 33,000-strong territory is eyeing the vote with increasing alarm, particularly as the latest opinion polls indicate a majority of Britons want to leave the EU.
At stake is a thriving services-based economy that relies in large part on access to the EU’s single market, and the sovereignty spat with Spain.
Gibraltar’s leader Fabian Picardo said Cameron’s visit to the Rock was “historic.”
“This is the big one,” he wrote on his Facebook page.
“The one we all thought would never happen and has become a reality.
“Never before has a PM come to Gibraltar, in mid campaign or otherwise, to… make clear the UK’s position on Gibraltar.”
The last sitting prime minister to visit the tiny territory — half the size of London’s smallest borough of Kensington and Chelsea — was Harold Wilson in 1968.
But he only came to hold talks with Ian Smith, the leader of Britain’s former colony Rhodesia who had unilaterally declared independence three years prior.
Picardo has said he is worried Spain may seize the opportunity of Brexit — which would leave it without EU protection — to threaten the land border between the two, a long-time flashpoint in the sovereignty row.
Spain’s dictator Francisco Franco went as far as closing the crossing in 1969, all but stranding inhabitants who had to rely on air and boat links until it was fully re-opened in 1985.
Relations have ebbed and flowed since, but the past four years have seen tensions resurface under Spain’s conservative government.
In one particularly belligerent row over disputed waters, Spanish authorities upped border checks in 2013, creating hours-long logjams and forcing the European Commission to wade in and ease the crisis.
And last week, Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo revived the idea of sharing sovereignty over the Rock with Britain in the event of a Brexit.
Such a proposal had been sketched out between the two countries in 2001 and 2002, but rejected after Gibraltarians voted against it in a referendum.
Picardo appealed to people in Gibraltar to come out in force to see Cameron address the crowds on Thursday afternoon.
“Let’s support the ‘Gibraltar Stronger In Campaign’ so that tomorrow anyone in the UK watching the news will see how much voting to remain in the EU matters to us,” he said.