It has been 30 years since Britain last fought a war over the remnants of a colonial empire on which the sun never set.
Although Spain hasn’t explicitly threatened a remake of the 1982 Falklands War between Britain and Argentina in its own centuries-old colonial-era dispute, over Gibraltar, the belligerent talk coming out of Ol’ Blighty suggests that Margaret Thatcher’s famed “Falklands spirit” is alive and well.
“Hands off our Rock — that’s what I say,” London Mayor Boris Johnson wrote in The Telegraph newspaper Sunday, pooh-poohing official claims that the timing was a coincidence and that Britain was not planning the Spanish Armada in reverse.
“Perhaps it really is a coincidence … that we have just sent a fleet of warships to Gibraltar,” he wrote. “But I hope not. I hope that one way or another we will shortly [pry] Spanish hands off the throat of our colony.”
In London, Defense Ministry officials said the Royal Navy deployments are part of a long-planned military exercise and not connected to the 3-centuries-old dispute over the 2.6-square-mile area with its iconic Rock of Gibraltar, a limestone promontory nearly 1,400 feet high.
But the timing of the exercise underscores the tension over the British territory of nearly 30,000 residents that guards the narrow channel at the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea separating Spain and Africa.
The feud between the two European Union and NATO allies has increased since February 2012, when Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy called on Britain to agree to talks about Gibraltar’s sovereignty — an issue Britain says was settled more than 300 years ago. In 2002, Gibraltar residents voted overwhelmingly to remain part of Britain.
Tensions increased after Spain protested Gibraltar efforts to expand an artificial reef, started in 1973 to promote marine life. Madrid said the expanded reef would disrupt its fishing fleets and was not within Gibraltar’s territorial waters.
Spain retaliated with expanded security checks along its three-quarter-mile border with Gibraltar, prompting Britain to accuse Spain of trying to sabotage Gibraltar’s key tourist industry with lengthy customs inspections.
“The prime minister is disappointed by the failure of the Spanish to remove the additional border checks … and we are now considering what legal action is open to us,” a spokesman for British Prime Minister David Cameron told reporters Monday in London.
“This would be an unprecedented step, so we want to consider it carefully before making a decision to pursue.”
In recent years, Argentina also has turned up the heat in its dispute with Britain over the sovereignty of the wind-swept Falkland Islands, about 300 miles east of Argentina. That conflict brought the two nations to war in 1982 after a lightning Argentine invasion overran the colony and Thatcher sent a naval and air task force to expel the Argentines.