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Gibraltar chief minister rejects any talk of war, but says Spain's behavior is 'abominable'

The 300-year old dispute between Spain and the U.K. over the peninsula of Gibraltar is casting a shadow over Brexit talks even before officials have begun discussing how the U.K. is set to leave the EU.

Former conservative leader Michael Howard said during the weekend that Prime Minister Theresa May would be prepared to go to war to protect Gibraltar as Margaret Thatcher once did for the Falklands. The comments follow the publication of the EU's draft guidelines for Brexit negotiations, which said that any new agreement with the U.K. that applies to Gibraltar will need to be approved by Spain.

A Union Jack flag (bottom), the flag of Gibraltar (center) and the European Union flag fly in Gibraltar on March 28, 2017.
Jorge Guerrero | AFP | Getty Images
A Union Jack flag (bottom), the flag of Gibraltar (center) and the European Union flag fly in Gibraltar on March 28, 2017.

"Nobody wants to talk about going to war," Fabian Picardo, chief minister of Gibraltar, told CNBC on Monday.

He added, however, that "the way that Spain has behaved is really quite abominable."

The sovereignty of Gibraltar has been a contentious issue between the U.K. and Spain for centuries. The territory is self-governed in all matters excluding foreign policy and defense, which are decided in the U.K. This means, for instance, that Gibraltar conducts border checks because the U.K. is not part of the EU's passport-free area.

The paragraph in the EU's guidelines has offended Gibraltarians, who in 2002, said no to the idea of shared sovereignty between the U.K. and Spain by 99 percent in a referendum.

"If we re-run the Brexit referendum, given the way the council has behaved and other European partners have behaved in allowing Spain to get this just into the draft I think they would be hard pressed to get a better result here than they did in Sunderland," Picardo told CNBC, referring to Sunderland's strong support for Brexit.

However, officials in Brussels have told the Guardian, the EU will not back down in its support for Spain over Gibraltar in Brexit negotiations.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Theresa May called the Chief Minister Fabian Picardo to say that she will fully include the peninsula in the Brexit process.

"She reiterated our long-standing position that the UK 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," Downing street said in a statement.

Spain's surprised

Alfonso Dastis, the Spanish foreign minister, said Monday that the government is a "little surprised" at the U.K.'s attitude.

"In this case, the traditional British composure has been notable for its absence", Dastis said at a conference in Madrid, Reuters reported.

Boris Johnson, the U.K.'s foreign secretary, said on Monday that "the position of the (U.K.) government is very very clear which is that the sovereignty of Gibraltar is unchanged, and is not going to change, and cannot conceivably change without the express support and consent of the people of Gibraltar and the United Kingdom."

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