BRITISH politicians today insisted they would not be “bullied” over the future of Gibraltar as Spain launched a shameless attempt to exploit Brexit and seize back the Rock.
Madrid signalled it could look to browbeat the tiny territory into submission and force it to switch allegiances by starving its people and business of access to the single market.
This morning it emerged the Spanish have secured a special veto over Gibraltar’s future relationship with Europe, meaning it can prevent any post-Brexit trade deal with the UK from applying there.
The bombshell clause, buried deep in the EU’s negotiating guidelines, caught British officials completely by surprise and is already threatening to sour the start of the divorce negotiations.
It provoked an immediate response from Westminster where MPs said that Gibraltar’s 30,000 strong population, who overwhelmingly backed Remain but also want to stay British, must not be used as bargaining chips.
Influential Tory backbencher Andrew Rosindell, who is the vice chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Gibraltar, said if Spain tried to stop the Rock being part of any Brexit deal the UK would simply walk away from the table.
He fumed: “An agreement without including Gibraltar means there can be no agreement. British people must and will stand together, we cannot be bullied by Spain.
“Any agreement must apply equally to the whole British family and that includes Gibraltar. There can be no compromise on this.”
One British official said the “totally unacceptable” clause had caught Whitehall by surprise, raging: “One really wonders why the EU has thought it sensible to put in something that’s a bi-lateral issue between Spain and the UK.”
However, EU sources told express.co.uk they were more “relaxed” about the situation, saying the document “simply states the situation as currently exists and changes nothing” because Spain would have a veto over any trade deal anyway.
They added that Madrid was politically posturing and “obviously wants it in there to make a point” but added that the wording did not carry much significance in legal terms.
The EU’s guidelines state: “After the United Kingdom leaves the Union, no agreement between the EU and the United Kingdom may apply to the territory of Gibraltar without the agreement between the Kingdom of Spain and the United Kingdom.”
Lib Dem MP Tom Brake said the inclusion of the clause in the EU’s official negotiating position showed how vital it was for Theresa May to seal a deal securing the future of the Rock as quickly as possible.
He said: “Confirmation that Gibraltar’s future must be agreed by the UK and Spain shows just how damaging the government’s hard Brexit will be on this strategically important British territory.
“Theresa May must urgently produce a plan that protects the citizens of Gibraltar, including their businesses and communities. It is our obligation to support our overseas territories, and any attempt to brush off the importance of this issue is a dereliction of duty by the government.”
The clause applies to any agreement signed after Britain leaves the EU, meaning that a likely transitional deal between the two parties would apply to Gibraltar as well as the rest of Britain.
However, it does threaten permanent future economic ties which EU leaders have repeatedly stressed will take much longer to thrash out and will only be implemented once the UK is no longer a member.
The wording raises the possibility that Spain could push for Gibraltar to be excluded from any future trade deal at the same time as it applying to the rest of the UK as a way of trying to force the Rock into seceding and joining up with Madrid for its EU membership.
A spokesman for the UK Government said: “These are draft guidelines and we look forward to beginning negotiations once they have been formally agreed by the 27 member states.
“It is clear both sides wish to approach these talks constructively, and as the Prime Minister said this week, wish to ensure a deep and special partnership between the UK and the European Union.”
Also today Tory MEP Ashley Fox, who represents Gibraltar, separately criticised Brexit negotiator Guy Verhofstadt for failing to mention the fate of the Rock’s citizens in his draft resolution on the EU parliament’s Brexit red lines.
Mr Fox said: “There is much in the resolution that I find disappointing, but that does not surprise me.
“What I find both surprising and most unwelcome is the way Mr Verhofstadt has ignored Gibraltar’s participation in the referendum.
“I can only conclude that they are both frightened of offending Spain.”
The resolution, unveiled by the former Belgian prime minister earlier this week, calls for reciprocal rights for EU and British citizens by stating that “a large number of United Kingdom citizens, including a majority in Northern Ireland and Scotland, voted to remain in the European Union”.