Rock and a hard place

Why Gibraltar is such a source of discomfort for the British government.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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The people of Gibraltar have spoken – nearly 99 percent of those who voted in a referendum rejected any deal sharing sovereignty between Britain and Spain (1). They say they are British, and they want to remain under British control.

This 2.5-square-mile limestone rock jutting out into the Mediterranean has become a source of great discomfort for Britain, which has been working hard at sorting out a backroom deal with Spain. A compromise with Spain would firm up Britain’s relations with this important European Union (EU) ally. For UK foreign secretary Jack Straw, the some 30,000 people of Gibraltar are just getting in the way.

This British dilemma over Gibraltar shows the extent to which the dynamics of international relations have changed over the past decade. It shows that the assertion of national power over contentious territories is not important in the same way.

Britain and Spain have been battling over the Rock for 300 years. Anybody who looks at a map might think that Gibraltar obviously belongs to Spain, but the Rock has historically been very important to Britain. Since Britain captured Gibraltar from Spain in 1704 during the war of Spanish succession, the Rock has endured 15 sieges at the hands of Spain. The most recent began in 1969 – and Spain did not lift restrictions on Gibraltar until 1985 (2).

Yet now, it seems that both Britain and Spain are prepared to share control over Gibraltar, and give the people of the Rock even greater autonomy from both.

For Britain, the Rock has long lost its strategic interest. Lying at the edge of Europe and at the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea, Gibraltar was very important in the days of maritime battle – and was an important British base in the world wars. When conflicts between European powers came off the agenda after the Second World War, Britain was prepared to relax its stance on the Rock. Even as Margaret Thatcher was prepared to fight to the death over the Falklands Islands, she was entering into talks over Gibraltar. Britain wants to retain an army base on the Rock, but that is about all.

Before, any deal was prevented by Spain’s claim to full control over Gibraltar. Attached to the Spanish mainland by a thread, Gibraltar has always been important to Spanish nationalism, while the country found it difficult to unite over much else. Today, at a time when Spain is receiving proposals for de facto shared sovereignty from its already-semi-autonomous regions of the Basque country and Catalunya, sharing sovereignty over the Rock doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.

But while the world has moved on, the Rock has not. In a world of compromise and cooperation between powers, they have set out their stall against the Spanish: ‘No pasaran!’ The Gibraltarian people’s assertion of their British identity is uncomfortable for the British elite, who find no such allegiance from the people of mainland Britain.

For the British state, Gibraltar is like a timewarp. The Union Jacks, the claims of allegiance, the cries of ‘traitor!’ against anyone willing to compromise with Spain…all of this is strangely out-of-key. Gibraltarians’ British identity was forged and maintained under Spanish siege – they are British through their loathing of the Spanish, who lie only a few miles away – and so has endured while ties among Britons have become more relaxed.

In other ways, too, Gibraltar is behind the times. Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell was shocked when he confronted the Gibraltarian chief minister about the lack of rights for gay people – ‘What’s wrong with that?’, was the chief minister’s unapologetic response (3).

But the Gibraltarian people’s allegiance to Britain places the British government in a quandary. To keep Gibraltar it would have to assert itself against Spain – to give it away it would have to ride roughshod over the wishes of the Gibraltarian people.

Britain hasn’t got the stomach to do either, and so will probably potter along with backroom deals with the Spanish and arm-twisting and carrots for the people of Gibraltar. It probably wishes the Rock would just sink into the sea and be gone.

(1) Gibraltar votes out joint rule with Spain, Guardian, 8 November 2002

(2) See Gibraltar: Rock of ages BBC News, 5 June 1999; Gibraltar, Guardian unlimited 12 July 2002

(3) The Rock shows it is a hard place, Guardian, 7 November 2002

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Topics Politics


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