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Gibraltar: A Firmer Response Is Needed


On the 17th of July, a Spanish Navy patrol boat intercepted two merchant ships en route to the port of Gibraltar and ordered them to turn around[1]. The incident took place within the 3-mile International limit, which Spain does not recognize in the case of Gibraltar. This incident adds to the more than 600 incursions[2] by Spanish flagged vessels into the disputed waters around the Rock since 2013, one of the most serious of which was caused by a Spanish oceanographic vessel refusing to depart after repeated warnings by British and Gibraltarian vessels[3].

The newest incident is more disturbing, however. Previous incidents involved civilian or police vessels only: the survey vessels belonged to the Spanish Oceanographic Institute, while others were Civil Guard patrol craft. This latest incident involved a Spanish national ship, part of the Spanish Navy. If this is the first instant of a new dynamic, rather than an isolated incident, then it represents a serious escalation in the dispute. Actions by national forces are far more difficult to overlook; and the continued denial of entry into a foreign port by national naval vessels is called a “blockade” and is considered an act of war under international law.


Of course, I am not suggesting that Spain is seeking to provoke a war with Great Britain, nor even to deliberately escalate tensions. The incident might very well have been an excess of zeal on the part of the ship’s captain rather than anything that originated in Madrid. Only time will tell; we shall see if this is part of a pattern.

In the meanwhile, the British are justifiably incensed. They have called in the Spanish ambassador in London, Federico Trillo, and have almost certainly raked him over the coals. Mr. Trillo has been summoned to Downing Street so often that it would not surprise me to learn he keeps a bed there. The British Ambassador in Madrid, Simon Manley, also met with the Spanish Director of Foreign Affairs, Ignacio Ybáñez, to deliver a strong protest at the action of the Spanish Navy[4]. The Spanish Foreign Ministry subsequently issued a statement rejecting the British protests and calling the actions of the Navy “entirely normal and justified.”

Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” in which case the UK´s Foreign Office is in imminent danger of institutionalization. The routine of Spanish action-British protest is, by now, hackneyed in the extreme; nor has it achieved anything of the least benefit for the people on either side of the Line. Nor has it scared the government of Mariano Rajoy into reconsidering its provocative agenda; on the contrary, it has only confirmed to these opportunists that they can push the British as far and as long as they like without suffering any consequences. If the British want the harassment to stop – and they should – then a different tactic is called for.

This is as opportune a moment as any. William Hague is stepping down as Foreign Secretary and he is being replaced by Philip Hammond, the Defence Secretary. A change in minister can lead to a change in policy without the need for anyone to swallow their pride. Cameron’s government might also find it an auspicious occasion to “pick a fight” to bolster its credentials with the more conservative British electors. Emphasizing British unity in the face of foreigners just before the Scottish referendum might also prove beneficial to the pro-union vote: there is nothing like beating the drum to get folks to close ranks against the “other”.

That being said, and despite the fact that Mr. Hammond’s previous portfolio was defense, there is no reason to encourage a militaristic response to the Spaniards. Sending a squadron to the Rock may look good in the press, but it would actually play into Mr. Rajoy’s hands. After all, the Spanish government doesn’t really expect the British to hand over Gibraltar, much less under duress; it is a drama being played out for a domestic audience, to distract and to shore up Mr. Rajoy’s own support among his conservative supporters. Responding aggressively only wins Mr. Rajoy points with his people and encourages him to continue the incursions.


How then to convince Mr. Rajoy to stop the harassment? By making it clear that continued baiting of John Bull will begin to have real economic costs for Spain and for Spanish businesses in the UK. Spanish multinationals like Banco Santander, Telefónica, Iberdrola and Inditex have made major investments in the United Kingdom, while Ferrovial manages Heathrow Airport, the busiest in the world. Additionally, mid-cap Spanish businesses are also looking north for markets and opportunities in the large and competitive UK market[5]. This commerce is enormously beneficial for both countries, of course, and it should be encouraged, not stifled. But if Mr. Rajoy’s government continues to act more like a throw-back to the goose-stepping nationalism of Franco’s illegal regime, then perhaps Mr. Cameron should have British regulators scrutinize every single transaction with magnifying glass. It would indeed be a shame of the people of Santander Abbey started receiving weekly visits from the Bank of England and Competition and Markets Authority regulators, but then again, it is just possible that Mr. Rajoy will pay more attention to Mr. Botín’s protests than he does to Mr. Cameron’s.

The United Kingdom cannot discriminate openly against Spanish passport holders when they enter the country, but since everyone knows perfectly well which are the Monday morning flights that bring loads of Spanish business people to London for their weekly commute, it might be necessary to heighten security at those times and have many more “random security checks” that – completely by coincidence of course – happen to fall most heavily on these business travelers. Administrative harassment of this sort isn’t pretty and it is borderline illegal under existing international arrangements: but then again, so are the Spanish actions. And they are more likely to convince Mr. Rajoy to change tack than sending a squadron of Eurofighters to RAF Gibraltar.

Beyond this sort of coercive pressure, the UK should make a serious and sustained effort to have Gibraltar removed from the list of colonial and non-self-governing territories in the United Nations. Both claims are patently absurd; they were successfully added to that list by an astute Franco taking advantage of the vast decolonization movement of the 1960’s and the addition of literally dozens of new states with a bone to pick against former imperial powers to the UN General Assembly. Gibraltar is in Europe: it is no more a colony of Great Britain than Corsica is of France. Whatever the situation in 1960, Gibraltar is clearly a self-governing territory at this point, with its own constitution (approved by popular referendum in 2006) as well as numerous popular referendums that have overwhelmingly supported maintaining the British connection. The latest one was in 2002, registering and 88% turnout and a 98.5% rejection of joint sovereignty with Spain. It is difficult to get any clearer than that[6].

Or if perhaps Britain should push to have Ceuta, Melilla and the Canary Islands included on that list, since they are clearly Moroccan territories invaded by Spain without even the flimsy cover of a treaty to justify the continued occupation.

By legal treaty and by repeated democratic plebiscites, the United Kingdom and the people of Gibraltar have expressed their preference to maintain the solemn pledge and bond that binds them. In other words, Spain doesn’t have a leg to stand on: but Spain has a record of not recognizing or denying people their sovereign rights to self-determination when it is convenient. The International Court of Justice Advisory Opinion on Western Sahara (1975) had recognized the right to self-determination for the people of that Spanish colony; but Spain utterly ignored it in a shockingly disgraceful abandonment of the province which led directly to its invasion and annexation by Morocco. In fact, Moroccan troops had already crossed the border as the Spaniards hastened their departure. If further contrast were needed, one need only look at the difference between the British attitudes toward a Scottish referendum and those displayed by the Spanish government towards its Basque and Catalan minorities.

While Spain isn’t going to accomplish anything with Gibraltar other than embarrassing itself and deepening the dislike for Madrid on the British side of the Línea de la Concepción, that is no reason for the United Kingdom or the people of Gibraltar to continue to put up with harassment. The appropriate response is not an increased military presence since war between the two NATO nations is out of the question anyway; but it is to ratchet up the costs to the Spanish companies and business people who have Rajoy’s ear and the Partido Popular’s purse strings. Money talks, in Spain as much as in England: once the moneyed interests in Spain begin to suffer the same degree of harassment and inconvenience as the defenseless people down south, the harassment will end quickly enough.


Sources and Notes:


[1] Brian Reyes, “Britain Steps In Over Shipping Incident,” Gibraltar Chronicle, 17 July 2014

[2] “‘More than 600’ Gibraltar incursions since 2013,” BBC, 11 April 2014

[3] Fiona Govan, “Spanish ship in ‘heated’ standoff with Royal Navy in Gibraltar,” The Telegraph, 19 November 2013

[4] “El embajador británico sobre Gibraltar: ‘La posición del Reino Unido es muy clara’,” El Mundo, 18 July 2014

[5]Miles Johnson, “UK acquisitions: Groups make most of good connections,” Financial Times, 29 November 2012

[6]Emma Daly, “Gibraltar Rejects Power-Sharing Between Britain and Spain,” The New York Times, 08 November 2002.

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