Who Would Win a War Over Gibraltar, Britain or Spain?

British soldiers changing the guard outside the Convent building in the British overseas territory of Gibraltar, on March 29. Alex Brill writes that while the U.K. has a larger military, Spain enjoys a proximity advantage to the Rock. Jon Nazca/reuters

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

On April 4, the Spanish patrol boat Infanta Cristina crossed into Gibraltar territorial waters, further raising tensions between the U.K. and Spain over Gibraltar.

This action comes on the heels of last week's European Commission's draft guidelines for negotiations with the U.K. over its departure from the European Union, which declared:

After the United Kingdom leaves the Union, no agreement between the EU and the U.K. may apply to the territory of Gibraltar without the agreement between the kingdom of Spain and the U.K.

The New York Times reports the practical concern of this matter as this:

Once Britain is outside the European Union, which guarantees free movement of people, Spain could demand concessions or make the border with Gibraltar harder to cross, effectively isolating the territory.

Earlier this week, my colleague Michael Rubin wrote an informed critique of Spain with respect to this provision. He noted:

Spain may seek advantage from Brexit going forward in order to reclaim Gibraltar; that's Madrid's prerogative. However, so long as Spain continues to hold Ceuta and...then Spain and the European Union's case will be both hypocritical and weak.

Related: Michael Rubin: Spain's land grab in Gibraltar is pure hypocrisy

Hypocritical or not, so outraged is the British government that Michael Howard, a British Conservative member of Parliament, took to TV to dryly observe:

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 in standing by the people of Gibraltar.

A U.K.-Spain war? MP Howard insisted that that's not what he was insinuating. But still, I'm curious who would win. As the following table shows, the numbers are not exactly definitive.

Global Firepower

While the U.K. is generally regarded as having a larger military and is certainly understood to have a larger economy from which to finance its military, its advantage on at least some common sense metrics is modest and its demands greater; the U.K. has more geopolitical interests around the globe to defend.

Related: Brexit: Spain to seek co-sovereignty on Gibraltar

Spain, on the other hand, while somewhat less well equipped would have a proximity advantage in any armed conflict over Gibraltar. In short, the winner from such a hypothetical encounter is far from obvious to a casual observer.

In the end, perhaps the only battle Spain will win will be one over food, wine and beaches. Nevertheless, Brexit seems likely to fuel a wide set geopolitical confrontation, some of which may catch us by surprise.

Alex Brill is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).