Gibraltar chief warns Britain against disappointing 'the Rock'

GIBRALTAR (Reuters) - The British people will harshly judge any prime minister who lets down Gibraltar at the last moment in Britain’s negotiations to leave the European Union, the chief minister of “the Rock” has told Reuters.

Gibraltar voters “chose to remain (in the EU) and should not become the first or last victim of Brexit,” Chief Minister Fabian Picardo warned in an interview.

But he expressed confidence that whoever emerges as prime minister after Britain’s general election on June 8 understands this: “We will not be let down at five minutes to midnight.”

Gibraltar, a tiny British enclave on Spain’s southern tip dubbed “the Rock” because of its famous cliff-faced mountain, is set to be a major point of contention in the exit talks, along with other thorny issues such as trade and citizens’ rights.

Residents of the territory voted overwhelmingly to remain part of the EU in last year’s Brexit referendum. Gibraltar wants London to negotiate a “special status” with the EU for it after the British exit

“The British people would judge very harshly a prime minister or any other minister in the British cabinet who at the last minute lets down the people of Gibraltar,” Picardo said.

But he added: “The next prime minister of the United Kingdom ... will continue to stand by the people of Gibraltar and continue to ensure that the sovereignty of Gibraltar is secure.”

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Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservatives are tipped to increase their majority in the election, opinion polls show.

In March, the European Union offered Spain a veto right over the future relationship between Gibraltar and the EU after Britain leaves the bloc.

Spain, which claims sovereignty over the territory it ceded to Britain in 1713, has frequently irritated EU partners with attempts to use EU negotiations to put pressure on Gibraltar.

Gibraltar rejected the idea of Britain sharing sovereignty with Spain by 99 percent to 1 percent in a 2002 referendum.

Spain has signalled it was ready to discuss a special status for post-Brexit Gibraltar without abandoning its claims for joint sovereignty over the disputed territory.

Reporting By Reuters TV, writing by Sonya Dowsett; Editing by Tom Heneghan