Spain has abandoned plans to stop an independent Scotland from joining the EU amid an escalating row with Britain over the future of Gibraltar.
Alfonso Dastis, the Spanish foreign minister, said his Government will not block a future Scottish EU membership bid, giving a boost to Nicola Sturgeon.
It came as Sir Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, suggetsed that Britain is ready to go to war to defend the sovereignty of Gibraltar. He vowed to go “all the way” to protect the territory.
Sir Michael said that Britain was going to “look after” Gibraltar, adding that the people of the peninsula had made it “very clear” that they did not want to live under Spanish rule.
Lord Howard, the former Tory leader, has said that Theresa May would go to war to defend Gibraltar’s sovereignty. He said that Theresa May would show the “same resolve” over Gibraltar as Margaret Thatcher did over the Falklands.
And the Prime Minister told Fabian Picardo, the chief minister of Gibraltar, that Britain would not allow Spain to seize the Rock against its will.
A Downing Street spokesman said: “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.”
The row erupted after the European Union put the future of Gibraltar at stake in Brexit negotiations by effectively backing Spain in its long-running dispute with the UK over the British Overseas Territory.
The EU’s draft Brexit negotiating guidelines appear to hand Spain an effective veto over whether an eventual deal will apply to Gibraltar. The move prompted fury in the UK, where ministers described the move as “utterly unacceptable”.
Mr Picardo accused Spain of trying to “manipulate” Brexit negotiations in a bid to make a claim on the Rock.
Sir Michael told BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show: “Gibraltar is going to be protected all the way because the sovereignty of Gibraltar cannot be changed without the agreement of the people of Gibraltar and they have made it very clear they do not want to live under Spanish rule.
“It is interesting in the draft guidelines from the EU that Spain is not saying that the whole thing is subject to the transfer of sovereignty.”
Lord Howard drew comparisons with the invasion of the Falkland Islands by Argentina, highlighting the 35th anniversary of the start of he war.
He told Sophy Ridge on Sky News: “There is no question whatever that our Government will stand by Gibraltar.
“Thirty five years ago this week another woman prime minister sent a task force half way across the world to defend the freedom of another small group of British people against another Spanish-speaking country. I am absolutely certain our current Prime Minister will show the same resolve.”
Mr Picardo said that life under Spanish rule would be “absolutely awful”.
“I am sure the UK will be batting for Gibraltar,” he said. “Gibraltar is not on the table as a chip.”
Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, said that the UK’s support for Gibraltar will remain “implacable and rock-like”.
He said: “I wanted to reiterate that the UK remains implacable and rock-like in our support for Gibraltar.
“As the Prime Minister herself said earlier this week, we are clear that Gibraltar is covered by our exit negotiations, and we have committed to involving Gibraltar fully in the work that we are doing.”