Spain Promises Not to Hold Brexit Hostage to Gibraltar

View of Gibraltar, April 6, 2016
View of Gibraltar, April 6, 2016 (Scott Wylie)

Spain will not hold the Brexit negotiations hostage to discussions about Gibraltar, the country’s foreign minister, Alfonso Dastis, has told ABC newspaper:

I do not want to jeopardize an agreement between the European Union and the United Kingdom by subjecting it to a need to alter Gibraltar’s status at the same time.

Dastis did say he hopes the Gibraltarians will consider sharing sovereignty with Spain, but his statement appears to be a climb down.

Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy earlier said he would not allow Gibraltar to remain in the European single market if Britain leaves.

A European Council negotiation document published by the Financial Times read that “no agreement between the EU and the United Kingdom may apply to the territory of Gibraltar without the agreement between the Kingdom of Spain and the United Kingdom.”

This was interpreted in Britain as giving Spain a veto over the terms of its exit. Read more

Brexit Is an Opportunity to Take Back Control — For Spain

The Rock of Gibraltar, April 6, 2016
The Rock of Gibraltar, April 6, 2016 (Scott Wylie)

When Brexiteers said leaving the EU would be a chance to “take back control”, they presumably weren’t thinking of Spain. But Spain has been thinking about them.

Now that the United Kingdom has formally triggered its exit from the bloc, the Spaniards smell an opportunity to take back control of a territory they lost to Britain over 300 years ago: Gibraltar. Read more

Spain Unwilling to Keep Gibraltar in Single Market Under Brexit

Prime Ministers Mariano Rajoy of Spain and Theresa May of the United Kingdom meet in Madrid, October 13
Prime Ministers Mariano Rajoy of Spain and Theresa May of the United Kingdom meet in Madrid, October 13 (La Moncloa)

Since Britons voted to leave the European Union in a referendum in June, Spain has ramped its rhetoric surrounding the territory of Gibraltar, a sliver of land that has been in British hands for centuries but to which Spain continues to claim sovereignty.

Earlier this month, the acting Spanish foreign minister, José Manuel García-Margallo, threatened to “put up the flag” on the Rock, hinting at a Spanish takeover.

He insisted that if Britain leaves the EU, “Gibraltar is out” as well, even though 96 percent of its residents voted to stay. Read more

Gibraltar and Scotland in Talks to Stay in European Union

View of the Queensway Quay Marina from the Rock of Gibraltar, April 23, 2002
View of the Queensway Quay Marina from the Rock of Gibraltar, April 23, 2002 (James Cridland)

Gibraltar is in talks with Scotland to find a way for both to stay in the European Union, the BBC has learned.

One possibility under discussion is for Gibraltar and Scotland, which both voted to stay in the EU, to maintain the United Kingdom’s membership of the bloc.

Northern Ireland, which also voted to remain, could potentially be included in the talks.

Majorities in England and Wales voted in a referendum on Thursday to leave the EU. Read more

Britain Threatens Legal Action as Warship Sails for Gibraltar

The British nuclear submarine HMS Superb sails by Gibraltar, May 20, 1993
The British nuclear submarine HMS Superb sails by Gibraltar, May 20, 1993 (Royal Navy)

Britain warned Spain on Monday that it was prepared to take legal action to force it to abandoned tighter border controls near Gibraltar in what was described as an “unprecedented” step against a European ally.

Earlier in the day, the British warship HMS Westminster set sail for the British enclave as part of an annual military exercise in the Mediterranean while Spain’s El País newspaper reported that the government in Madrid might enlist its former colony Argentina at the United Nations to contest Gibraltar’s sovereignty.

Argentina disputes British control of the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic Ocean.

In both overseas territories, the populations have voted overwhelmingly to remain under British sovereignty. In a 2002 plebiscite, 98 percent of Gibraltarians voted down a shared sovereignty arrangement between Spain and the United Kingdom. Earlier this year, virtually all inhabitants of the Falkland Islands voted to remain a British dependency.

The government in London says it is examining options through European courts to stop Spain hindering the free movement of people across the border. A European Commission spokesman confirmed on Monday that officials would travel to the area in September to “verify compliance” with European Union rules.

Like Britain itself, Gibraltar is not part of Europe’s Schengen Area customs union. Spain is therefore entitled, if not obliged, to perform full entrance and exit controls.

The peninsula has been a British territory for exactly three centuries. Spain tried to reconquer it several times and formally reasserted its territorial claim during Francisco Franco’s dictatorship in the 1960s. The country recently stepped up checks at the border, causing long delays for tourists as well as Spaniards living nearby who work in the area. Spain has also suggested that it might impose a border crossing free and ban planes using its airspace to reach Gibraltar.

Tension was supposedly stirred when Gibraltarian authorities dumped seventy concrete blocks near Spanish waters to create an artificial reef. Spain denounced the action, saying that the blocks had been dumped “without any type of authorization and breaking several environmental norms.”

Spain claims the enhanced border checks are a legitimate response to prevent money laundering and tobacco smuggling. However, British commentators as well as opposition politicians in Madrid suspect the government there is trying to divert public attention from a corruption scandal besetting the prime minister and his party as well as the nation’s lackluster economic performance. London’s conservative mayor Boris Johnson made the argument in The Telegraph newspaper on Sunday when he compared the harassing of Gibraltarians at the border to Argentina’s ill-fated invasion of the Falklands in the 1980s.

Forget all this palaver about a few concrete blocks that have been dumped in the sea. That isn’t why the Spanish are going back to the Franco-style blockade. This isn’t a row about fish. I am afraid that this is a blatant diversionary tactic by Madrid and though it would be ludicrous to compare the Rajoy government with the tyranny of General Galtieri and his invasion of the Falklands, the gambit is more or less the same.

The former Royal Navy base, renowned for its Rock that guards the narrow Strait of Gibraltar, has a population of under 30,000 and thrives mainly on financial and online gambling services as well tourism.

British-Spanish Relations Sour After Gibraltar Incursion

A cable car gondola travels up the Rock of Gibraltar, September 20
A cable car gondola travels up the Rock of Gibraltar, September 20 (Andrew Tijou)

In part of its ongoing dispute with the Spanish government over the sovereignty status of Gibraltar, Spain’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, Federico Trillo-Figueroa, was summoned to the Foreign Office before the weekend for what was undoubtedly a heated exchange.

The redress was in reaction to a recent naval incident wherein a civilian vessel from Gibraltar was almost seized by the Armada Española and Spanish customs officials, were it not for the intervention of the Royal Gibraltar Police.

Europe Minister David Lidington explained on Thursday that Britain had “repeatedly made diplomatic protests to Spain over attempts by Spanish state authorities to exercise jurisdiction in British Gibraltar territorial waters.” He condemned Spain’s “provocative incursions” and urged its government “to ensure that they are not repeated.”

The minister furnished other details of the latest incident, reporting that a Spanish “warship” took a tour of Gibraltar’s territorial waters for some time, followed by the arrival of Spanish customs vessels seeking to intercept the civilian boat.

Latter-day Tortuga

While this particular encounter may have been a genuine anti-smuggling operation on the part of the Spanish authorities, it is difficult to imagine that the Royal Gibraltar Police and subsequently the Foreign Office would be so involved if that were so, considering the potential humiliation of having backed a gang of smugglers.

(Quite a concern in the region. Gibraltar, according to some Spanish sources, is a veritable twenty-first-century Tortuga.)

In any case, the arrival of Spanish navy craft in British territorial waters makes it an audacious but interesting indicator of the mood of the Spanish government, which has already been established as one of somewhat belligerent disinterest into what the elected government of Gibraltar has to say on the issue, abandoning tripartite talks earlier in the year.

Such a foray, from what is on paper a NATO ally and fellow European Union member state, into British sovereign waters and the intimidation of citizens of a overseas territory, should probably receive a sterner rejoiner than the Foreign Office wallahs are likely to issue. The assignment of a Type 45 or Daring class destroyer to the Gibraltar Squadron of the Royal Navy may be a clearer statement of the British position on “Gib,” something the Spanish foreign minister, José Manuel García-Margallo, has previously requested from his British counterpart, William Hague, even if gunboat diplomacy is out of favor these days.

Sour grapes

The attempted seizure shortly follows what many Britons and Gibraltans perceived as another example of unjust harassment, including six-hour detained customs lines, by Spanish border authorities as they attempted to enter the tiny peninsular, which has been a point of very sour diplomatic grapes between the three parties involved.

Foreign Policy reported in February that Gibraltar could become the subject of even greater tension. It would seem that has come to pass with Fabian Picardo, head of Gibraltar’s government, making demands that London protest this kind of interference most formally, joined by British politicos who have expressed consternation, including a senior Foreign Office official, to the Spanish ambassador at what they see as Spanish interference.

Ambassador Trillo, apparently a shrewd legal mind and former defense minister, is, in the opinion of this commentator, unlikely to be an easy nut to crack in any setting.

Given the string of incidents of late and the state of diplomatic bad will between Britain, Gibraltar and Spain, this fresh intrusion into the affairs of what are practically in law British nationals and into British territorial waters to boot, will do nothing to win Madrid over to the inhabitants of “The Rock.”

Not that that would seem to be a concern of the Spanish Foreign Office, customs officials or indeed, navy.

Much like the Argentinian claim on the Falkland Islands, the Spanish claim and interferences are most unwelcome by the people who live there, a view they have expressed (in the case of Gibraltar) in two referendums. These displays, intrusions and other belligerent mistakes only serve to reinforce the feeling of futility in Britain and her overseas territories of dealing with such states.

Fortress Under Siege? Gibraltan Sovereignty in Jeopardy

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.