Britain and Spain: Between a Rock (Gibraltar) and a Hard Place

The recent Anglo-Spanish row over the status of the Rock of Gibraltar, the baboon infested territory that dictates access to the Mediterranean, comes with a 300-year history and competing legal claims. Neither England nor Spain is likely to budge over its status, but a discussion over the territory’s position as a tax haven could leave room for compromise.

Tensions over Gibraltar date back to 1704, when an Anglo-Dutch fleet seized it during the War of the Spanish Succession. It was then ceded in perpetuity to Britain in 1713. Despite an assault in 1726 followed by a four-year siege from 1779–83, the Spanish failed to retake these six square kilometers on their nation’s southern tip. It has been a cause of resentment among Spaniards ever since. The dispute caused such a disruption that Francisco Franco, the Spanish dictator, closed the border for 16 years from 1969–1985.

From Madrid’s perspective, Gibraltar infringes upon its citizen’s fishing rights. The territory imposes far greater restrictions on anyone fishing in its waters than Spain does. Gibraltar also functions as an aggressive offshore tax haven that draws workers and investment away from Spain. Its corporate tax of 10 percent has allowed it to emerge as a financial hub for online gambling companies. This economic success story is all the more painful given Gibraltar’s location next to Andalucía, the Spanish region with the highest unemployment rate in the European Union, at 34.8 percent.

For the British, the principle of self-determination has replaced the right of conquest as its main claim to the Rock. Referenda held in 1967 and 2002 returned crushing majorities (99.64 percent and 98.48 percent, respectively) in favour of continued British sovereignty.

Conversely, the Spanish position centers on the equally valuable legal principle of territorial integrity. They claim Gibraltar was taken from Spain by military means and that correcting this 300-year-old territorial violation should take precedence over self-determination.

Interestingly, Spain has not even attempted to justify its presence in the similarly disputed enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla through referenda, despite the certainty of a vote in Spain’s favor. Madrid is unwilling to employ self-determination to bolster these claims in North Africa due to the potential precedent it might set, not only in Gibraltar, but also in Catalonia, where public opinion is split equally on the question of independence.

However, in the aftermath of the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union, Spain believes that the calculus has shifted in its favor. With the United Kingdom out of the club, the remaining member states will be far more likely to side with Spain in any diplomatic dispute. Indeed, barely a week after the referendum, the Spanish government began to speak of co-sovereignty as “the only possible solution.”

On March 31, Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, published the EU’s draft negotiating position on British withdrawal, which included a paragraph widely viewed as handing Spain a veto over the future of Gibraltar.

The bombastic reaction from the British right suggests Spain may have touched a nerve. The frivolous invocation of potential military escalation from both the press and members of Parliament was alarming. Michael Howard, the former conservative leader, compared Theresa May’s resolve over Gibraltar to that of Margaret Thatcher’s in defending the Falkland Islands. The Daily Mail reacted to a Spanish war ship entering Gibraltarian waters by stating: “Next Time Send an Armada.” Not to be outdone, The Sun on April 4 came with a free pull-out poster captioned, “Hands Off Our Rock,” a slogan whose Spanish equivalent (Nuestra Roca no se Toca) was beamed onto the North face of the Rock of Gibraltar itself the following day.

Equally as predictable, the British left rapidly moved to give the ghost of empire another exorcism. Anyone unwilling to give Gibraltar away against its people’s wishes was dubbed a “jingoist,” an “imperial fantasist” or “living in the shadow of the British Empire.” Far better for these ideologues that Britain apologizes for its past wrongs than that people live in well-governed prosperity.

In contrast, Gibraltarian sovereignty has actually remained a relatively quiet issue in the Spanish press, with the tendency erring toward satirical portrayals of the alarmist reaction in Britain. The Spanish government has followed this line, Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis noted his “surprise…that someone in the UK is losing their temper.” But this has masked evident determination in Madrid, which subtly ratcheted up tensions. On April 2, Dastis gave Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party a huge boost by stating Spain will no longer seek to veto membership of the EU to a hypothetically independent Scotland. This was followed by the provocation of sailing a warship through Gibraltarian waters on April 4.

Gibraltarians, well aware of the potential problems that may be caused by Britain leaving the EU, voted emphatically (at 96 percent) to remain in the European Union. These fears have increasingly begun to manifest themselves over the past month. Extra checks at the Spanish frontier have caused huge queues, which, ironically enough, affected Spaniards working on the peninsula more than anyone else.

As history shows, Gibraltarians have seen this all before. The multicultural inhabitants of this speck of land have shown fierce loyalty to Britain, even when Tony Blair’s government tried to jettison them in 2002. Whatever diplomatic wrangling takes place between London, Madrid, and Brussels, it is likely Gibraltarians will make it exceedingly difficult to extricate themselves from British sovereignty.

To accommodate Spain, Britain should be prepared to restrict Gibraltar’s ability to set hostile tax rates. After all, a foreign-occupied territory is far more tolerable when it’s not costing the treasury millions in tax revenue.

ImageThe Rock of Gibraltar. (Xiquinhosilva, Flickr, Creative Commons)

Joe Barnes is currently reading for an MSc in Russian and European Studies at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He writes on British, European, and Russian politics and has been published in the Financial Times, London, and British political blog Left Foot Forward. He can be found on twitter @joealdinho22.

One comment

  • Why this absolute refusal of all Britons to give the minimal visibility to UN resolutions on this issue of decolonization? The UN has made it clear since 1965 that colonial situation in Gibraltar destroys Spanish territorial integrity, and that decolonization must be agreed upon in a dialogue between Spain and the United Kingdom. Everything else mean to remain forever anchored in the nineteenth century. By the way, now Spain is inside Europe, and ‘…fog in the Isthmus, continent cut off’.
    Good luck outside.


Submit a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s