British prime minister Theresa May reiterated her support for her Spanish counterpart Mariano Rajoy today (Tuesday) over the Catalunya political crisis, and both said they hoped to see an agreement with the Brexit negotiations very soon.
Rajoy had travelled to London to meet Mrs May at 10 Downing Street, where they spent 90 minutes on a working lunch during which Brexit was, inevitably, a hot topic of conversation – but although they discussed bilateral relations between the UK and Spain, the contentious subject of Gibraltar’s sovereignty was not mentioned.
Catalunya, equally as topical, was given plenty of air-time, since Mrs May has always stated categorically that she backs the Spanish government’s ‘defence of legality’ in the face of the ‘illegal’ separatist movement, and that her Conservative government would refuse to recognise an independent State of Catalunya.
She reinforced this during today’s meeting with the Spanish president, saying: “It is imperative that the law of the State should prevail and that the Spanish Constitution should be complied with.”
Rajoy thanked her for the UK’s backing of ‘the Spanish government and the people of Spain’, adding: “Without respect for the rule of law, there can be no democracy, and what is happening now is a return to some of the worst past episodes in the history of humanity.”
The Spanish leader said in his press conference following the meeting that the relationship between Spain and the UK is ‘as old as the history of the two countries’ and rooted in ‘a friendship’ based on shared values of ‘freedom, democracy, the separation of powers and the rule of law’.
He recalled that the UK is Spain’s fourth-largest international customer and seventh-largest supplier, its main investment destination and that Spain ‘is visited by more citizens from the UK than from any other country’.
Rajoy acknowledged the ‘half a million Spanish and British citizens’ who have ‘chosen to live in the UK and Spain respectively’, but said that although he ‘would not want to exaggerate or underestimate the difficulty’ of the Brexit challenge, Spain would ‘respect the result’ of the referendum.
“Citizens are our priority; we must give them certainty and reassurance,” Rajoy stated.
“We must protect their rights and interests and ensure businesses can carry on operating with full legal security and predictability – anything else would seriously discourage investment, growth and job creation.”
The Spanish president said it is ‘our obligation as leaders’ to ‘minimise the impact’ of the Brexit decision on citizens as far as possible.
“It’s a matter of pragmatism, but also of justice,” he stressed, whilst praising May for her handling of the negotiations with Europe, for her ‘constructive spirit’ that has ‘helped the talks move forward significantly’.
Rajoy also said, though, that the EU’s key Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier ‘had Spain’s full support’.
“The UK is leaving the European Union, but it is not leaving Europe,” Rajoy argued, highlighting the importance of ‘building a strategic alliance’ to help deal with ‘common 21st-century challenges’ such as ‘job creation, migration, climate change, development, cyber-security and terrorism’.
Britain’s backing of Spain’s approach to Catalunya independence is ‘particularly significant’, the president said, since the UK is ‘the cradle of parliamentarism and the rule of law’.
“Winston Churchill, whose family history is linked to Spain’s War of Succession, said: ‘the farther back you can look, the farther forward you can see’; the history of our nations is inextricably intertwined and will carry on being so,” Rajoy told reporters.
He said the UK could ‘count on Spain’s loyal and sincere friendship’.
“We want the best for the UK, because that’s simply another way of wanting the best for Spain,” Rajoy concluded, stipulating that Theresa May’s having supported Spain over Catalunya was yet another reason why Brexit would not break the ties between the two countries.
Both Rajoy and May insisted there was no reason why the ongoing issue of Gibraltar should affect the current EU-UK negotiations, even though Spain has managed to convince Europe that any decisions concerning the Rock vis à vis Brexit should include the Spanish government’s input.
Former foreign affairs minister José Manuel García-Margallo famously stated, on the morning of the Brexit vote, that Spain was closer to being able to ‘fly its flag’ from Gibraltar, and had long been determined the enclave should return to Spanish hands more than 300 years after it was signed over to the UK by treaty.
But the natives and residents of Gibraltar – of whom 96% voted to remain in the European Union – want to remain British, as was seen in the unanimous result of two referenda in the last 25 years.