Fortress Under Siege? Gibraltan Sovereignty in Jeopardy

The Spanish government has signaled an interest in renegotiating the position of the Rock. What’s at stake?

View of the Rock of Gibraltar from Spain, September 25, 2007
View of the Rock of Gibraltar from Spain, September 25, 2007 (la3endiscordia)

In Foreign Policy this month, it was hinted that, along with the Falkland Islands, the tiny peninsular of Gibraltar, located on the southernmost tip of the Iberian Peninsula, may become a high-profile case for sovereignty discussion between Britain and a foreign power, in this case, Spain. This comes in tandem with a recent increase in tension concerning the aforementioned Falklands and the bid by the Argentine government to take the matter of their sovereignty to the United Nations.

Gibraltar, nicknamed “The Rock” after the imposing mountain which overlooks its Mediterranean and Atlantic bays, was captured in the early eighteenth century by an Anglo-Dutch force and has been a British naval base ever since. Its position was further codified in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht which ended British involvement in the War of the Spanish Succession, along with formally declaring that a number of territories be ceded to Britain, including several French colonies in North America along with Gibraltar.

The import of “Gib” in British strategic history was of high order, allowing a base from which to exercise command of the mid Atlantic, plague France and Spain and control the Western Mediterranean. It was a vital post during Britain’s expansion and later dominance of world affairs in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The recently elected Spanish conservative government under Mariano Rajoy has made an official stance to the effect of a new vitality in the Spanish claim to Gibraltar, stating that it will abandon tripartite talks and ignore Gibraltan input on the issue. Instead, Madrid seeks only to deal with the British government directly, perhaps hoping for a more favorable course.

With Spain’s economic position looking poor, it may serve as a healthy distraction, or so Gibraltar’s chief minister, Fabian Picardo, reckons. “The Spanish government are playing to their constituency of support and concentrating more on the theory of their claim, rather than the realities on the ground,” he said. “And with five million or so people unemployed, it seems to me the Spanish have other more important priorities than historic claims over my people.”

I am also sure David Cameron would much sooner be concentrating on his own busy schedule of Olympics, economy and Falkland Islands, should the Argentinians press the issue further.

The people of Gibraltar are mostly of Genoese, Portuguese, British or Maltese stock, along with the natural migrations of peoples since the days of the imperial expansion. Few of them recognize themselves as Spaniards nor do they wish to be. With the current economic climate in Southern Europe, with the problems in Greece potentially causing more trouble, can anyone blame them? Especially given Gibraltar’s fairly stable relative position and of development and growth. The Spanish claim seems to smack more of jealousy than of sorting out some kind of issue.

The Spanish foreign minister, José Manuel García-Margallo, has been particularly belligerent, writing to his British counterpart William Hague for a clue on the British stance regarding The Rock though the official line seems to continue, as it now does with the Falkland Islands, that it is the will of the people living in the territory which decides their future. Much like in the Falklands, the people of Gibraltar see themselves as British and they are legally seen as such by the 1981 Nationality Act. They’ve also voted on it, twice, once in the 1970s and once in 2002, in sovereignty referendums.

Therefore, by the will of the people and by extension the British position, the people of Gibraltar shall remain a British Overseas Territory as is their wish.

Any counterclaim should be a moot point and yet even British governments have wavered on similar issues before. Former prime minister Tony Blaire apparently showed an interest in power-sharing with Spain and, before the 1982 invasion, there was a strong message from Whitehall that Argentina would gain some kind of power over the Falklands.

The issue boils down, as all international interactions do, to the Thucydidian trinity of fear, honor and interest. It would be dishonorable, by the standards now held by the British establishment vis-à-vis the right of the populace to determine their own future, to ignore their say in any discussion, regardless of the demands of the Spanish prime minister or any number of his ministers, the European Union or the United Nations if it comes to it. The only decision to be made should rest in the hands of the people of The Rock and as subjects of the Crown, should be backed to the hilt whatever their decision be.

The interest and fear parts are less clear. In the days of Franco it was a welcome fact for many that Gibraltar, commanding the vital straits of its namesake, the gateway to the Mediterranean, was in the hands of a solid NATO ally which did not have the ups, downs and extremes of Spanish politics. For the interest of the West, captained by the United States, the security of the straits are of prime importance, a duty which cannot truly be entrusted to a state which has recently seen thousands of its citizens attend anti-NATO protests and could be considered more Eurocentric than the traditionally more transatlantic Britain.

That is not to say that it is likely that a return of Gibraltar to Spanish rule would result in some kind of blockade of the Mediterranean but in strategic affairs it is often prudent to be more safe than sorry, a fact which demands stable, friendly command of The Rock more than the particular color of any given flag and right now it is Britain which provides that, there is no pressing strategic need for external but potentially concerned parties, to see a change in that status quo.

On the face of things it seems unlikely that The Rock will shift, politically so to speak, to be under Spanish control and the argument will hopefully be settled swiftly, again (this is not the first, nor will it be the last). The people’s wishes will be respected despite any amount of hand gestures and banner waving from their immediate neighbor to the north.

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