By Ryan Barnes, Senior International Trade Specialist, U.S. Department of Commerce
Gibraltar, also known as “The Rock” for the iconic Rock of Gibraltar that towers over the western entrance of the Mediterranean, is a roughly two and a half square mile patch of land on the southern tip of Spain, straddling the Strait of Gibraltar that separates the European continent from Morocco. Once again, tempers have flared in London and Madrid, this time over Gibraltar’s plans to expand a reef in the Mediterranean, souring an otherwise sound partnership between the United Kingdom and Spain.
Over one thousand miles from the UK, Gibraltar is a “British Overseas Territory,” captured by a Dutch-Anglo force in 1704 during the Spanish War of Succession and formally ceded to Great Britain in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht. Its roughly thirty thousand residents, who are British citizens, are proudly celebrating three hundred years of British rule this year. With its traditional pubs and sterling notes, Gibraltar is a British island in a Spanish sea and an obstruction to Spanish territorial contiguity that Madrid has longed to rectify.
Over the years, many Spanish leaders have attempted to wrest control of Gibraltar from the British. General Francisco Franco continuously raised the issue during his near forty year reign, and his successors have sustained the fight. Downing Street, for the most part, has held firm. The closest Spain came to obtaining any semblance of authority over ‘The Rock’ came in 2002, when British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw crafted a proposal for joint Anglo-Spanish control of the territory. But Gibraltarians scuppered the deal, with ninety-eight percent of local residents voting against the measure in a referendum.
The current tension stems from Gibraltar’s plans to dump concrete blocks into the sea to expand an artificial underwater reef, which it contends will protect sea-life. Madrid complains that the reef encroaches on Spanish waters and hampers Spanish fishermen. The spat has spiraled into a tit for tat game of brinkmanship, with the Spanish enforcing greater custom inspections on the border, deliberately slowing traffic in and out of Gibraltar, and airing the possibility of imposing an onerous fee to enter Gibraltar. The British, meanwhile, threaten legal action and have sent a series of naval ships to the territory, which it claims is part of a “routine exercise.”
Passions have been enflamed on both sides. “Hands off our Rock — that’s what I say,” wrote London Mayor Boris Johnson in a recent column. Meanwhile, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has deemed the infamous reef an “environment attack,” defiantly declaring that he will “take the necessary measures to defend the interests of Spanish citizens.” Madrid has also subsequently raised the specter of partnering with Britain’s old foe, Argentina, to address Gibraltar and the Falklands before the United Nations Security Council and even possibly the International Court of Justice.
With such longstanding issues, especially those in which national prestige and credibility are at stake, it is often difficult to put the genie back in the bottle and ratchet down the tension. Neither side seems willing to back down just quite yet. In previous disputes, both sides eventually took a step back before things got out of control. The concern this time around is that, like the Falklands, the territorial dispute over Gibraltar could come to define the London-Madrid relationship and spoil other fruitful areas of cooperation. Britain and Spain, despite difficult economic conditions in both markets, are two of Europe’s biggest economies and close trading partners. As fellow EU and NATO members, they also partner together on a number of important issues. Ultimately, one has to hope that cooler heads will prevail and that both sides will seek to ensure that ‘The Rock’ does not fundamentally alter the mutually beneficial collaboration between two of Europe’s most important power-players.
Views expressed here are those of Ryan Barnes and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government.