A senior Spanish official has called for urgent discussions with Britain to discuss the question of Gibraltar. Socialist spokesperson in the Spanish Committee on Foreign Affairs, Senator José Carracao met British embassy official Andrew Whitaker yesterday and demanded (translated in English here) talks about Gibraltar’s sovereignty without further delay. Carracao said it is was a “bilateral issue” and called for greater police co-operation against smuggling operations and a greater Spanish economic presence in Gibraltar. The senator wanted to convene a mini summit of the Spanish government “to reflect on” the Gibraltar question.
His calls were not welcomed on the tiny 6 sq km Rock. Gibfocus.gi quoted Gibraltar’s Progressive Democratic Party leader Keith Azopardi who said Carracao’s attitude was a “blast from the past” and “a stark reminder of what Gibraltar must continue to struggle against.” Azopardi insisted on the need for Gibraltar’s citizens to be consulted before any decision is made about the Rock’s future. Spain must…accept that if we are really to move forward and enjoy a modern relationship with our neighbours,” he said, “Gibraltar’s sovereignty morally, legally and politically vests in its people.”
While there remains strong support on the Rock for a continued alliance with Britain, the 30,000 population itself is more diverse. The majority are European in origin but not necessarily British. Most descend from Spanish, Genoese or Maltese ancestors with a sizeable minority of North Africans. But its political system is resolutely British. Gibraltar’s constitution dates from 1969 and only the parliament in Westminster has the right to amend it. The governor is normally a retired military officer. He (and they have all been male since beginning in 1704) presides over the Gibraltar Council of a speaker, three other ex-officio members and 15 elected members. The colony enjoys a large measure of autonomy though its residents have right of abode in the UK.
Gibraltar occupies one of the historically significant strategic positions in Europe guarding the entrance to the Mediterranean from the Atlantic. Known in antiquity as the northern end of the Pillars of Hercules, it has long been vital outpost for defence and trade. In 711 Arabs crossed the straight to begin their conquest of Spain led by Tariq Zayad. He gave his name to the Djabal-al-Tariq (Tariq’s mountain) which became Gibraltar in Spanish. Spain briefly recaptured Tariq’s mountain in 1309 (before losing it back to the sultan of Fes) and took it again in 1462.
They held onto it until 1704 when a combined Anglo-Dutch force captured the fortress on the Rock during the War of the Spanish Succession. In 1713 the Treaty of Utrecht ended that war and awarded the “town and castle of Gibraltar” to Britain. It became a crown colony in 1830 ruled by a military administration. Their responsibilities were heightened after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. The Rock continued to play a large role in the 20th century wars though its entire civilian population was evacuated in World War II. When they returned in 1945 they elected their first city council. In 1969 the new constitution enshrined the right to prevent the people of Gibraltar from passing “under the sovereignty of another state against their freely and democratically expressed wishes.”
Spain never accepted it had relinquished sovereignty in the Treaty of Utrecht. However their opposition to British rule remained symbolic until 1964 when Franco approached the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation about the Gibraltar question. Spain claimed it was a colonial anachronism and said Gibraltarians did not have a right to self-determination because they were an artificial population created by British imperialism. Franco closed the Spanish consulate in the colony, restricted passage across the border and closed Spanish airspace to British air traffic.
Britain retaliatiated with a local referendum on Gibraltar’s future. The result was unsurprisingly overwhelming. 12,138 voted to keep the link with Britain; just 44 people voted against it. Spain then closed the border completely, ending a ferry link, and cutting phone lines. The stalemate lasted until well after Franco’s death in 1975. Spain finally softened its attitude in line with its attempts to join NATO and the EC (now EU) and partially reopened the border in 1982. It offered Gibraltar autonomous status similar to Catalonia but conceded it would need the support of the native population.
However that support seems unlikely to arrive anytime soon. Opinion polls consistently show 90 percent oppose any change in the colony’s status. In the 1990s, the local government attempted to stimulate the local economy after the Royal Navy ceased using the shipyard for construction and repairs. Their lax tax policies attracted offshore banks and businesses. Tourism has expanded as has Gibraltar itself with a project to reclaim 300,000 sq m of land from the sea. However tobacco and drug-smuggling from Morocco has become a major policing problem. Every night dozens of boats leave Gibraltar for the Spanish coast mainly laden with tobacco and hashish causing Spain to complain it loses millions in customs revenues.
It is this problem that Carrasco wants to exploit in order to re-establish Spanish influence. But other than repeating claims to Spanish sovereignty, he does not offer any permanent workable solution to the colony’s future. And Spanish argument about colonialism is undermined by its own Moroccan-based enclaves Ceuta and Melilla. Among the options discussed in the past that might satisfy Spain is a British lease-back arrangement (similar to Hong Kong) but this is unpopular in Britain and unacceptable to the locals. No party seems to want total integration with the UK but total independence is equally unfeasible as Gibraltar would not survive without financial support.
There is also the example of other European micro-states such as Monaco and San Marino who delegate some sovereignty to larger nations however Spain would need to be convinced of the viability of this option. The colony’s chief minister Peter Caruana was also concerned the colony would become a victim of the warming relationship between Britain and Spain after the Iraq War. “We are delighted that Britain and Spain should get on well together” said Caruana in 2003, “but do not think [Spain] should expect any payoff related to Gibraltar and our British sovereignty.” This rock will long continue to be a hard place for British and Spanish relations.