Gibraltar: A Tango of Nations

Farheen Asim – Pakistan

Gibraltar once a prized possession of the Spanish was incorporated into the British Empire after the war of Spanish Secession. Ever since, Gibraltar’s history has been one of ongoing struggle between the two kingdoms. The ensuing Brexit talks are causing an escalation over the issue as the EU prepares to give Spain veto rights over Gibraltar’s place in the Union.

Gibraltar is a rocky outcrop at the tip of southern Spain which over the years has garnered many names. In the past, it was known as the Pillar of Hercules and today it is fondly called ‘the rock’. Strategically placed, it guards the entrance to the Mediterranean and provides access to the Atlantic. It was a highly-contested area back when geopolitics was still king in guiding national strategy. This tiny “2.6 square mile peninsula that is home to about 30,000 people” has had a long and tumultuous history and continues to be a source of conflict to this day.  Originally a territory of the Spanish Kingdom, it was lost to the British in 1713. Spain has wanted it back ever since. The triggering of Article 50, which will launch the formal Brexit process, has re-escalated tensions between the two nations as the EU plans to give Spain a veto over the future of Gibraltar’s relationship with the Union. This has led the UK to riposte by stating that it refuses to negotiate away Gibraltar’s sovereignty as part of the Brexit talks. In fact, former Conservative leader Michael Howard has suggested that the British government would display the same resolve Margaret Thatcher did when defending the Falklands. This not so subtle threat of war was escalated by the Royal Navy ordering a Spanish patrol ship called Infanta Cristina out of the peninsula’s disputed territorial waters.  This latest spat has caused various media tabloids to eagerly dissect the military capabilities of both countries as a heaviness descends upon this historical quarrel.

Gibraltar entered history with the Treaty of Utrecht and the end of the war of Spanish Secession. The war of Spanish Secession was triggered when Charles II died, giving his entire Spanish inheritance to the Duke of Anjou who also happened to be a Bourbon. The Bourbons at this point in time governed France and were one of the most powerful families in Europe. The possibility of France and Spain uniting under one single powerful monarch was perceived by other nations as a threat to Europe’s balance of power, and an alliance spearheaded by the British was promptly formed to oppose this. War was declared. The British have always regarded continental Europe as a potential threat, and one of its key strategies has been to keep it from ever unifying and growing too powerful. Throughout history it has brokered alliances against the main European power of the time for just this purpose. The war of Spanish Secession was no different. According to The Economist, Britain would end up getting Gibraltar, as well as the island of Minorca, before returning it to Spain as part of the treaty of Amiens in 1802. Gibraltar would, however, become formerly integrated into the British Empire, its red telephone boxes a clear display of its Britishness. It is, however, important to note that “the Treaty of Utrecht proclaims that if Britain is ever to give up Gibraltar it must first offer it to Spain.” This possibility seems inconceivable as the British refuse to give up while the Spaniards refuse to give in.  

Gibraltar and its VAT (Value Added Tax)-free status has been an anathema to Spain who has tried several times since to capture it back while repeatedly making complaints of it being a “smuggling and money laundering” den. In fact, Spain launched an unsuccessful siege which lasted 4 full years before abandoning it in 1783 while General Francisco Franco vexed by its existence shut off all borders with Gibraltar completely. The current “Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis is urging the EU to side with Madrid on the future of Gibraltar,” praising the potential option of a Spanish veto. Spain has also ramped up diplomatic pressure as they recently announced that they would not get in the way of an attempt by an independent Scotland to join the EU family. Yet, surveys have pointed to the fact that Gibraltarians are overwhelmingly in favor of British rule with Fabian Picardo, a minister, lamenting that Spanish rule would be “awful”. Tensions are rising over this little territory, not for economic reasons, but for archaic ones steeped in a time of empires.

The issue of Gibraltar poses very interesting diplomatic questions and makes for an uncertain future. What will British strategy be vis a vis Europe? How will Spain and the EU react? And how will Spain handle the Catalonia problem after having positioned itself in favor of an independent and European Scotland? Catalonia, just like with Gibraltar, had its fate sealed in the aftermath of the Treaty of Utrecht where it lost its independence with the decree of Nueva Planta. Changes with Gibraltar could potentially legitimize any change with Catalonia. The past is coming back to haunt the present and its problems may very well become today’s problems. Britain is once again apart from the continent and may decide to resort to its old ways in attempting to dismantle Europe to better dominate it. It may also find resolve in the fact that the Falkland wars were a terrific marketing coup for the Thatcher government, creating a rally-round-the-flag effect desperately needed in the present. Whatever happens, whether or not the Spanish king gets his beard singed or the British concede, this is a tango of nations set to the tune of history.