A tense time on The Rock

gibraltar-1Since Spain and Britain are both members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and, if either were attacked, the whole alliance, including the US, would be committed to defend the country, the fact that Britain has dispatched a warship to waters claimed by Spain should perhaps be bigger news. There seems little immediate prospect of a war, but tension on this scale between two of America’s allies is more noteworthy than the mainstream media seem to think.

The tension is over Spain’s claim to the British territory of Gibraltar at the entrance to the Mediterranean, which borders on Spain. Though Spain has made several attempts to conquer “the Rock”, all have failed and the border has been clearly established since 1713. The name “Gibraltar” is actually Arab in origin, reflecting the fact that, along with Spain, it was part of the Arab Caliphate from 711. Arab rule in Gibraltar persisted until 1462, when the territory became Spanish for the first time. It was then held by the Spanish for 250 years before being ceded to Britain.

The border between Spain and Gibraltar seems to be the oldest unchanged land border in Europe. The border between Spain and Portugal was established a few years later and both Spain and Portugal were conquered by France during the Bonapartist wars. (Hence the Spanish territory of Louisiana being sold to Jefferson by the French). Switzerland, too, was overrun by the French, and France’s own eastern border changed several times in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Holland – aside from being conquered by Germany in the 1940s – established its southern border in 1830. Sweden, though staying out of the major wars in recent centuries, ceded Finland to Russia in in the nineteenth and Norway to independence in the twentieth. Denmark’s southern border was much further south prior to the unification of Germany in 1870. Britain’s only land border dates to 1922. Since almost no other country in Europe is 300 years old, it follows that its borders cannot predate 1713.

Since Spain’s possession of the Rock was 15 generations ago, and briefer than either the British possession which followed it or the Arab which preceded it, the Spanish claim seems to rest on nothing other than the fact that Spain is both next door and bigger. Is that a principle of international law? That a small territory cannot be adjacent to a big one? This would be bad news for the Spanish cities of Ceuta and Melilla, enclaves on the Moroccan coast. Such arguments of history and geography seem ridiculous. Surely Gibraltar belongs to the people who live there, and they have a clear right to self-determination? And the Gibraltarians have spoken. In a referendum in 2002 – opposed by both the British and Spanish governments – 98.4% of voters rejected a plan for joint sovereignty. The Spanish, absurdly, called Gibraltar’s referendum ‘illegal’. Since when has it been illegal for governments to consult the people?

The present crisis arose because Gibraltar constructed an artificial reef to protect its territorial waters. Spain, of course, claims those waters, and that the reef interferes with Spanish fishing rights. Only one Spanish vessel actually fishes those waters. Spain has imposed slow and burdensome border checks, illegal under the treaties of the European Union, and inconvenient to Spaniards who commute to Gibraltar.

War is unlikely, but the tension may continue for some time.

Quentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School as well as a freelance columnist published in the UK and all parts of the US. He blogs on social media and crisis communications at brandjacknews.com

%d bloggers like this: