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Between the Rock and a Hard Place


As I write this article, I am sitting on a 4th floor terrace in the Spanish port town of Marbella; close enough to see the Rock of Gibraltar on a clear day, but not close enough to see the hours long lines that form at the international frontier due to the recent row between Spain and Great Britain. Ostensibly, the stink-up has been provoked by the decision of the local government in Gibraltar to create an environmentally friendly artificial reef by dropping 70 three ton blocks of concrete on the seabed. The blocks were dropped in the area of disputed waters between Gibraltar and Algeciras and – adding insult to injury – British patrol vessels have been preventing local fishermen from dropping their nets over the new reef.


The Spanish government decided to retaliate by stepping up border checks[1] along the Línea de la Concepción, the Spanish town on the international frontier between Spain and the British Overseas Territory. Spanish border police have been rigorously checking vehicles coming into and out of the Rock, as there is a significant cross-border trade in dutied goods: a 10-pack carton of cigarettes can cost €40 in Spain, while only half of that in tax-free Gibraltar. As a consequence of these “anti-smuggling” checks, the wait to cross the border has increased to more than 4 hours each way, in 40º C heat.

Since then, it has been tit-for-tat. The British Foreign Office protested the additional border checks as “disproportionate measures” with London’s outspoken Mayor calling them reminiscent of “the Franco epoch”[2], in reference to the fascist dictator who ruled Spain until 1975. The Spanish Foreign Ministry replied that the controls were both legal and proportional, since Gibraltar is not within the “borderless” Schengen Area; and then threatened to impose a new 50 euro fee to cross into or out of the territory[3]. The UK vowed not to give way to such threats and to take the matter to the EU[4]. Spain also vowed not to give way and threatened to take the matter to the UN.

From such humble beginnings, the government of Mariano Rajoy has created a major international incident by picking a fight with Great Britain.

Red Herrings, Brown Envelopes

If all of this seems like inexplicable high drama, you would be right. There is something more than quixotic in this unlikely belligerence: here are two states, linked within a common market, with deep economic and social ties, and with excellent bilateral relations for the past 30 years practically tearing at each other’s throats. The histrionics are mostly on the Spanish side: major publications have been filled with menacing pictures of British warships steaming full speed ahead, failing to mention that these warships are deploying to the Mediterranean on NATO exercises which predate the current row by many months. NATO – an organization which Spain is also a member of.


Such a level of jingoistic yellow journalism exceeds even the low standards of the most xenophobic British tabloids, whose initial reaction was more of bewilderment than belligerence: “A row with Spain? Perhaps there was a football match and no one told us”.

The question remains: why would Mariano Rajoy pick a fight with a close ally and economic partner like Britain? To say that it is all about the reef is ludicrous in the extreme – there are diplomatic niceties and channels that prevent such minor frictions from escalating into major incidents. For some reason, the Spanish government decided to skip those entirely and to take the most belligerent approach[5]. What does the Partido Popular expect to gain?

Certainly not Gibraltar. There is no question of a transfer of sovereignty: Great Britain has impeccable legal standing on the Rock dating back to the never amended, never abrogated Treaty of Utrecht (1713)[6] which ceded Gibraltar to the UK in perpetuity. Spain’s argument for reclaiming sovereignty over the small peninsula is based entirely on the principal of territorial integrity and the return of colonial territories under U.N. resolutions in the General Assembly[7]. These are extraordinarily strange arguments coming from a nation that routinely ignores the claims of Morocco to Ceuta and Melilla, Spanish enclaves entirely surrounded by that North Africa kingdom.

The principal of territorial integrity is itself nefarious. If accepted it would put into dispute almost every border on the planet. Germany could claim a third of modern Poland as well as the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, once Königsberg. Poland and Lithuania could each lay claim to vast swathes of Belarus and Ukraine; and every hamlet in the Balkans has had multiple owners over the past 500 years. Of course, Spain has another reason to back “territorial integrity” to the hilt: it is an argument against secession by the Basques and Catalans.

Nevertheless, the inhabitants of Gibraltar themselves have never accepted even the principal of reintegration with Spain. By majorities approaching 99%, the Gibraltarians have rejected any measure that would alienate them from Great Britain, in 1967 and again in 2002. Although the Spanish have never recognized the government of Gibraltar and refuse to negotiate with them directly (that is evidently part of the problem), the British government has repeatedly stated[8] that it would “never” take any measure regarding the future of Gibraltar without the agreement of the inhabitants, the question would seem to be settled.

In fact, Mr. Rajoy’s ploy seems to be nothing more than a classic red herring, meant to distract the Spanish public from the dire economy and the deepening mire of corruption which both the Partido Popular and he himself increasingly find themselves in. Something was needed to distract the people from the never-ending spectacles of Luis Bárcenas, former Treasurer for the Partido Popular; of Iñaki Urdangarín, Duke of Palma and husband to Princess Cristina of Bourbon; the illegalities of Griñán and the Andalucían PSOE in the ERE scandal; the Swiss bank accounts of Mas and Pujol; Camps; and an extraordinarily long list of other major Spanish political figures. Until the return of La Liga in September, what could be better than to “beat the drum” for a while?

Bull in a China Shop?

Mr. Rajoy undoubtedly believes that he can pull John Bull’s nose for domestic purposes and get away with it scot free. Perhaps he is even right. On the other hand, he is running the risk of grave economic consequences:

  • Great Britain was the source of 22% of all tourists to Spain during the first five months of the year[9]. Tourism remains Spain’s one guaranteed money maker, but already British MEP for South West England and Gibraltar, Julie Girling, has called on British tourists to take their business elsewhere this summer. She was promptly inundated by “hate email and tweets” but remains defiant[10];
  • There are approximately 400,000 Britons residing permanently in Spain and 75,000 Spaniards residing permanently in Britain[11];
  • The above quoted figures are from a January 2012 article and probably represent 2011 data at the latest. Since then, Great Britain has served as an important safety valve for Spanish society, absorbing large numbers of unemployed workers, especially in London. The Telegraph estimates that the number of Spaniards in the UK may have doubled to 150,000 since the crisis began[12];
  • Spain is the UK’s eighth largest export destination and the UK is Spain’s fifth largest export destination with a total trade of approximately 28 billion euros between the two nations;[13]
  • Beyond mere statistics, top Spanish and British companies and brands are deeply involved in each other’s markets, starting with IAG, the merger of British Airways and Iberia (now including Barcelona-based Vueling). Vodafone and Telefónica; Santander, Barclays and Lloyds; Zara and Hackett London (owned by a Spanish company since 2005); the list goes on and on through innumerable manufacturing and service sectors.

Given all of this valuable commerce, Mr. Rajoy would have egg on his face should Great Britain decide to retaliate by imposing its own entry fee on Spaniards – also a perfectly legal and “proportionate” measure, since the UK is not a member of the Schengen Treaty.

  • Meanwhile, there are thousands of Spanish workers who are the most directly impacted by the measures instituted by their own government. Given Andalucia’s unemployment rate of 36%, it is not difficult to surmise their opinion of the rights and wrongs of the situation[14].

Bad Politics, Strange Bedfellows

One of the more humorous aspects of a situation which already abounds in surrealism is the threat voiced by the Spanish Foreign Ministry to make common cause with Argentina in the United Nations[15]. Argentina just so happens to be sitting on the UN Security Council now as one of the rotating member, well positioned to give support to Spain or block any motions that the UK, a permanent member of the Council, might make. Argentina had ratcheted up the tensions with Great Britain last year over the disputed Falkland Islands. President Cristina Fernández succeeded in convincing Mercosur members to refuse entry to their ports for all vessels flying the Falklands flag[16]; a hollow measure, since the number of Falkland Islands flagged vessels is extremely limited.

One can only imagine the glee with which Argentine government officials received the Spanish proposal. It was only last year that relations between the two countries were in danger of freezing solid over the nationalization by decree of YPF, the Argentine affiliate of Spanish oil company Repsol. At that point, Mr. Rajoy’s government was desperately seeking support from EU partners – including Britain – in denouncing the measure and in favor of legal and economic actions against Argentina.

That has all been forgotten, apparently. One can only wonder what the conversation between a self-satisfied President Fernández and President Rajoy must be like; what concessions Spain is going to have to make to buy Argentina’s support. Now is not a good time to be a shareholder in Repsol, still holding out for a decent settlement with the government of Argentina.


While the cooperation and support of Argentina will not make the slightest difference in the resolution of the dispute – far from it, there is nothing more likely to inflame British opinion and cause them to dig in their heels – it is radical break in policy for the Spanish conservative government. It also appears to be a sign of desperation. How else could one judge an alliance with so disreputable a leader as Mrs. Fernández? All that is lacking to make the farce complete is for Mr. Rajoy to extend overtures to Presidents Maduro and Morales.

One hopes for the sake of families and individuals on both sides of the border that all politicians, but especially in Spain, stop using Gibraltar as “bread and circus”. There are tens of thousands of people whose livelihoods are being ruined in this charade. There is not much hope of that, however; the politicos have made this a point of national honor and both sides are renowned for their prickliness on issues of pride. It would be a good time for the royal heads of state to earn their generous public pay and do their jobs: to remind their more populist ministers that cooler counsel must prevail.

Sources and Notes

[1] Giannangeli, Marco, “Spain Rocks the boat: Britain furious as Foreign Office warning on Gibraltar ignored,” Express, 4 August 2013
[2] “Boris Johnson Compares Gibraltar Row With Franco And The Falklands,” The Huffington Post UK, 12 August 2013
[3] “Spain considers Gibraltar border fee,” BBC News, 4 August 2013
[4] “UK Lodges Formal Complaint With Spain Over Gibraltar Delays,” The Huffington Post UK, 13 August 2013
[5] The second most belligerent approach, actually. The most belligerent approach would have been to close the border entirely, which was also the policy of General Franco.
[6] The Peace of Utrecht was actually a series of Treaties between the different belligerents in the War of the Spanish Succession, a war in which the principal loser was the dismembered Spanish Empire. Not all of the treaties were signed in 1713, but that is the generally accepted date for the cessation of hostilities between the principal combatants.
[7] UN Resolution 2231 (XXI) “Question of Gibraltar” and UN Resolution 2353 (XXII) “Question of Gibraltar”. Neither resolution takes into account the wishes of the actual inhabitants of Gibraltar.
[8] “The UK Government will never — ‘never’ is a seldom-used word in politics — enter into an agreement on sovereignty without the agreement of the Government of Gibraltar and their people. In fact, we will never even enter into a process without that agreement. The word ‘never’ sends a substantial and clear commitment and has been used for a purpose. We have delivered that message with confidence to the peoples and the Governments of Gibraltar and Spain. It is a sign of the maturity of our relationship now that that is accepted as the UK’s position” Jim Murphy, MP, Minister of State for Europe, “Proceedings of the UK Foreign Affairs Committee”, 26 March 2008
[9] Davies, Phil, “British visitors to Spain on the up,” Travel Weekly, 16 July 2013
[10] Mason, Daniel, “Twitter trolls target MEP for Gibraltar support,” Public Service Europe, 15 August 2013
[11] “Europe: where do people live?” The Guardian, 26 January 2012. Original source: Eurostat
[12] Wallop, Harry, “The new Spanish armada is on its way,” The Telegraph, 21 June 2013
[13] Instituto Nacional de Estadísticas
[14] Pradilla, Alberto, “Spanish Workers Hit Hard by Madrid-Gibraltar Row,” Inter Press Service, 15 August 2013
[15] “Gibraltar Row To Be Taken To UN By Spain With Argentina’s Support,” The Huffington Post UK, 11 August 2013
[16] Dominguez, Claudia and Mortensen, Antonia, “UK concerned as Mercosur decides to block Falkland Islands ships,” CNN, 21 December 2011

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