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UK government backs Gibraltar over Brexit fears

Gibraltarians could be unwilling pawns in the next few years of Brexit negotiations. They may have voted overwhelmingly against Brexit, but that didn't mean they want to be part of Spain.

Britain reassured Gibraltar late Friday that it would protect the territory's interests during upcoming talks on exiting the European Union.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told Gibraltar's Chief Minister Fabian Picardo that the British territory had its support after the EU suggested Spain would have a veto over the territory's future relationship with the trading bloc.

After the conversation, Johnson tweeted: "As ever, the UK remains implacable and rock-like in our support for Gibraltar."

Picardo had accused Spain of a "disgraceful" attempt to leverage the Brexit process to further its sovereignty claim over Gibraltar, a position echoed in Gibraltar's media.

The territory on Spain's southern tip was ceded to Britain in 1713, and sovereignty claims have often caused diplomatic tensions with London.

Gibraltarians voted overwhelmingly in favor of remaining under British control in two referendums in 1967 and 2002. They also voted overwhelmingly against leaving the EU in the Brexit referendum.

A man stands in a Remain campaign office during the referendum on whether the United Kingdom should stay in or leave the European Union, in Gibraltar (Getty Images/AFP/J. Guerrero)

About 95 percent of Gibraltarians voted to remain a part of the European Union

Spain first, Gibraltar second

The EU released its draft joint position for exit talks with Britain on Friday, which included the demand that no agreement between the UK and the EU may apply to Gibraltar without a separate agreement between Spain and Britain.

The position meant that Madrid could potentially block Gibraltar's access to any trade deal Britain negotiates with the EU, opposition politicians in Gibraltar claimed.

A senior EU official said that the issue was included in the guidelines, as it was one of several areas that involved joint or contested jurisdictions, and that "the EU is naturally pursuing the interests of the remaining 27 member states."

British Prime Minister Theresa May did not mention the territory in her six-page letter outlining her country's decision to leave the EU, an omission which drew sharp criticism from mainland politicians.

"In the absence of any clear commitment to defend Gibraltar's interests by the Prime Minister, the door has been opened for the EU to present it as a disputed territory, without a voice of its own in negotiations that will have profound implications for its future prosperity," Chairman of the House of Lords EU Committee Lord Boswell said.

Spain's conservative government, which has been particularly vocal about getting Gibraltar back, welcomed the EU's position.

"EU recognition of the legal-political situation defended by Spain satisfies us entirely," government spokesman Inigo Mendez de Vigo told reporters.

mb/rc (AP, AFP, Reuters, EFE, dpa)

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