Did the UK Threaten to Go to War with Spain?

04/04/2017 01:19 pm ET Updated Apr 04, 2017

There I was, an American, Skyped in to the very British Sky News to talk about the showdown between Spain and the UK over Gibraltar. Gibraltar, you ask, as in 'the rock'? Yes, the very one! I decided in advance that it was my job to smack everyone upside the head so I prepped some name calling and went after a British leader as a hysterical warmonger and accused Spanish leaders of being moral relativists. I righteously asked, who's thinking about the best interests of the people of Gibraltar?

It's not easy to understand why anyone would get all that excited over a 2.6 square mile chunk of rock, with a population of 30,000 people and about 300 monkeys. It was made famous in the U.S. by Prudential Insurance and is the subject of a very touchy territorial dispute between Spain and the UK. Like all things European, this dispute is old: Gibraltar was captured by the British in the War of the Spanish Succession in 1704, yet because Gibraltar shares a border with Spain, Spaniards can get quite worked up about it being theirs. At the same time, Gibraltarians (trust me, it's a word) feel British and sound British when they're speaking English. In Spanish, they tend to sound, well Spanish, since they tend to be perfectly bi-lingual.

The current conflict came about as the UK began the process of separating itself from the European Union this week. The first step is working out a plan for the two year exit process and the European Council's draft included language that stated that the Brexit deal would not apply to Gibraltar without an "agreement between the Kingdom of Spain and the UK."

This gave Spain some leverage over the future of Gibraltar and provoked a minor tizzy fit among some British politicians. The most shocking was from Lord Howard, the former leader of the Conservative Party who told the BBC:

"another woman prime minister sent a task-force halfway across the world to protect another small group of British people against another Spanish-speaking country. And I'm absolutely clear that our current woman prime minister will show the same resolve in relation to Gibraltar as her predecessor did."

In Trumpspeak, this translates to bombing the shit out of them. Lord Howard's less than subtle reference was to the Falklands War, which took place in the early 1980s between the U.S. and Argentina, a.k.a., that other Spanish-speaking country. Granted, these words did not come out of the actual Prime Minister Theresa May's mouth, but this guy is currently a member of the House of Lords. I have to admit that I got a kick out of watching an uncharacteristically emotional British reaction countered by an uncharacteristically calm Spanish reaction. Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis noted “The Spanish government is a little surprised by the tone of the comments coming out of Britain, a country known for its composure.”

Spain's government might have stayed calm, but they carried on a little passive aggressively by indicating that they might reverse their previous position on Scotland's possible future entry into the European Union. Spain has vehemently opposed this because they don't want to give the Catalonia independence movement any high hopes. So, no to independence, unless it's to stick it to the UK via Scotland or Gibraltar.

Beyond the bluster, the war reference was a stark, sad reminder of why the European Union was created in the first place. In the aftermath of World War II, the idea was to tie the fates of the European countries together so they wouldn't go to war again and create such atrocities on such a grand scale.

Also, while this kind of rhetoric might be just the ticket to rile up nationalistic fervor at election time, it translates into ugly fear at the international level. It's a glimpse into what we might expect from populist nationalists who end up governing countries, including our own. Whether nationalists like it or not, our interests form a patchwork quilt at the international level and we have to deal with one another on some level, preferably without the war threats.

Alana Moceri is an international relations analyst, commentator and writer and professor at the Universidad Europea de Madrid. You can follow her on Twitter @alanamoceri or Facebook.

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