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Spain and the UK: between a rock and a hard place over Gibraltar

By William Chislett

The installation of a concrete reef by Gibraltar in disputed waters off the British territory, which is designed to encourage sea-life to flourish, was the final straw for Spain, which has long claimed sovereignty over the Rock at the southern tip of the country.

British diplomats say there is little room for doubt in international law that the waters are British, despite the Spanish government’s argument that they were not specifically referred to in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht under which Spain ceded the territory to Britain.

As a result of the 72 concrete blocks dropped on the seabed, Madrid imposed extra border checks on the Spanish side that have caused lengthy traffic queues of up to several hours. Spain has similar reefs for environmental purposes in various areas of the Spanish coast.

The UK government in London says the checks are excessive and break EU free movement rules. The conservative Popular Party (PP) government of Mariano Rajoy insists they are needed to control smuggling, particularly of cigarettes. A European Union (EU) team is to monitor the border.

In a move that was reminiscent of the conflict over the Falklands in 1982 (another relic of the British Empire invaded by Argentina), the Royal Navy’s HMS Westminster docked in Gibraltar in the middle of August after a flotilla of Spanish fishing boats staged a protest about the reef.

In a reversal of the Spanish Armada, the Spanish fleet that sailed against England in 1588 and was defeated, other British warships joined HMS Westminster in what UK defence officials called a long-scheduled deployment in the Mediterranean and the Gulf. A British aircraft carrier, the Illustrious, sailed along the Spanish coast as part of the military training exercise.

Obviously, the two countries are not going to war. Spain, however, has threatened to join forces with Argentina and take the sovereignty issue to the United Nations, while the UK government might take the case of border controls to the European Court of Human Rights. In Spain, the spat is seen as a diversion from the country’s five-year recession and tough austerity measures, and the slush fund scandal in which the PP is embroiled.

The Rock of Gibraltar. Photo by Karyn Sig, 2006. Creative Commons License via Wikimedia Commons
The Rock of Gibraltar. Photo by Karyn Sig, 2006. Creative Commons License via Wikimedia Commons.

Unlike in the 16th century, Spain and the UK are allies and not sworn enemies today: both are members of NATO and of the EU. Some 12 million British tourists visit Spain every year, the largest country group, and two-way trade and direct investment is very strong.

The squabble comes at a time when Gibraltar is celebrating 300 years of British rule. The anniversary has been marked by a set of four Gibraltarian stamps, which bear the Union Jack, a portrait of Queen Elizabeth and the words from the Treaty “for ever, without any exception or impediment whatsoever” which Madrid regards as provocative.

While the previous Spanish government of the Socialist José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (2004-2011) sought to ease the tone over the contentious issue of sovereignty by agreeing to set up with London a trilateral forum (Spain, the UK, and Gibraltar) to air grievances other than sovereignty, the PP killed this initiative by insisting on widening the forum to include local interests in the Campo de Gibraltar (the area in Spain close to the Rock). The UK and Gibraltar rejected this. Had the trilateral forum still existed, Gibraltar would probably have informed the Spanish government about the reef and the current situation might have been avoided.

The PP government hankers after a return to the 1984 Brussels Process, which established a bilateral negotiating framework with the UK for the discussion of all issues including sovereignty.

The trilateral forum was a modest step in winning the hearts and minds of Gibraltarians. The PP government’s heavy-handed response to the artificial reef, though it has legitimate concerns over other issues such as money laundering, has only served to harden Gibraltarian attitudes to Spain and remind them of previous crises, particularly the closing of the border in 1969 by General Franco, Spain’s dictator (1939-75). Last March, the US Department of State called the Rock “a major European centre of money laundering.”

The preamble to the Constitution declares that “her Majesty’s Government will never enter into arrangements under which the people of Gibraltar would pass under the sovereignty of another state against their freely and democratically expressed wishes.” In other words, Gibraltarians have the last word and it is highly unlikely they would ever vote to come under Spanish rule or even some kind of shared rule (the idea, as opposed to an actual agreement, was rejected in a 2002 referendum by 98.9% of votes, although it carried no legal weight). The residents of Hong Kong were not consulted when handed to China in 1997 when the New Territories’ lease ended; Gibraltar has a different status.

My wife and I suffered the consequences of the closure of the border, which was not re-opened until 1982. We were married in Gibraltar in 1974 because during the Franco regime Catholicism was the state religion and it was difficult for a Catholic (my wife) to marry a Protestant. Civil marriages did not exist in Spain. The only way to get to the Rock from Madrid, where we lived, was either by flying to London and then to Gibraltar or by train from the Spanish capital to the port of Algeciras and from there to Tangiers by boat and then in another ship to the British territory, an arduous journey and the route we took there and back.

We are hoping that by the time I appear at the Gibraltar Literary Festival at the end of October, it will not take hours to cross the border and common sense will have prevailed.

William Chislett, the author of Spain: What Everyone Needs to Know, is a journalist who has lived in Madrid since 1986. His book will be presented at the Cervantes Institute in London on 9 September, in Madrid on 24 September and at Gibraltar’s Literary Festival on 25 October 2013. He covered Spain’s transition to democracy (1975-78) for The Times of London and was later the Mexico correspondent for the Financial Times (1978-84). He writes about Spain for the Elcano Royal Institute, which has published three books of his on the country, and he has a weekly column in the online newspaper El Imparcial.

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Recent Comments

  1. Mojluf Cohen

    The US did not in fact call Gibraltar anything like you claim – it is a conflation that has been circulated widely, but for its part the Guardian apologised for perpetuating the error: “A comment article about Gibraltar and the Falklands incorrectly stated that the US department of state had called “the Rock ‘a major European centre of money laundering'”. In fact, it was referring to Spain (Gibraltar and the Falklands deny the logic of history, 14 August, page 27).”


  2. […] column in the online newspaper El Imparcial. He has previously written on Spanish unemployment and Gibraltar for the […]

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