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Gibraltar: The Daily Grind


There has been a stand-off today between a number of Spanish government vessels and the Gibraltar Squadron inside the Territorial Waters of the British Overseas territory. Beginning at 0500 local time, the HMS Sabre left the port at high speed to intercept and shadow the Spanish Oceanographic Research Vessel Ángeles Alvarino. Throughout the morning, the Spanish ship refused to heed the repeated orders of the British patrol boat to return to Spanish waters, and more vessels joined the stand-off. At one point, the HMS Sabre also had the RN Rhib and the pilot vessel Sir Adrian James in support, while the Spanish ship had been joined by two patrol boats of the Guardia Civil.



You might think that this is a strange and potentially dangerous game of chicken between the vessels of two NATO alllies; and you would be right on the second assumption. Unfortunately, the occurrence is not uncommon at all: it is part of the daily grind imposed unilaterally on the citizens of Gibraltar by the Spanish government, as well as on their own citizens, many of whom cross the Linea de la Concepción for work every morning. Spain claims sovereignty over Gibraltar and considers it a British colony that must be returned. The United Kingdom, and more importantly the people of Gibraltar, consider “the Rock” to be a self-governing overseas territory of the UK, not a colony at all. The Spanish might find it hard to believe, but this long and repeated history of harassment and attempted intimidation has not brought the Gibraltarians to love them and it should not come as a surprise that they have taken every opportunity to vote overwhelmingly (98%+) to preserve the British connection, most recently in 2006 when they voted in their newest constitution.


The harassment has become far worse since the investiture of the current Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy Brey, in December 2011. This is not an immediately intuitive situation, since both the Spanish Partido Popular and British Tories are conservatives and often align their interests in the European Parliament. Also, the previous right-wing government of José María Aznar got along well with the Labour government of Tony Blair until 2004. Notwithstanding these rapprochements, the current government is acting in a fashion more in keeping with the various stand-offs instigated by the fascist Franco regime during the 1970’s than as a NATO ally and European partner. Spain routinely refuses to allow NATO vessels and aircraft traveling to or from Gibraltar to also visit a Spanish port or airfield while in transit. Yet the Spanish government is happy to welcome large numbers of warships from the Russian Navy in the port of Ceuta with at least 54 port calls since 2010 [i].

The Russians are getting very comfortable on “their side” of the vital shipping lanes that pass through the Straits.


Why should this squabble between the United Kingdom and Spain be a concern for NATO and the United States? The United Nations estimates that the 14-kilometers of the Straits handle 3,000 vessels per day, 25% of sea-transported oil shipments, and 30% of all tonnage entering or leaving the Mediterranean. It is not only a critical military and economic choke point; it borders critical states in North Africa and the Sahel. For this reason the United States maintains, with the permission of our Spanish allies, both a naval presence in Rota (near Cádiz) and the 3,500-man Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response-Africa at Frontera[ii]. These are the largest and most important European deployments the US military has since the drawn down of V Corps in Germany in the mid-2000’s.


So State and the Pentagon should not remain indifferent to the sight of Russian anti-submarine warfare destroyers passing the time of day and drinking sangria within shouting (and shooting) distance of RAF Gibraltar and an easy sail from Rota. Nor is it irrelevant that Marine V-22 Ospreys flying out of Morón would not be able to land at Gibraltar outbound or inbound while executing vital missions; the Crisis Response force is not there to take pictures of the Andalusian countryside. This is not an idle scenario: given the close cooperation between our military and that of our closest ally, the UK, a mission involving US and Royal Marines could be easily imagined.

This is ultimately a problem for the British Foreign Office to deal with, of course. Unfortunately, the Foreign Office has shown a degree of restraint that would have made Sir Winston Churchill swallow his ubiquitous cigar in disgust. From a recent UK Parliamentary debate on Gibraltar [iii], a report concludes:

“96. Not only is this unacceptable in a close EU partner, it is also counter-productive, as it only hardens Gibraltarians’ feelings toward Spain. Spain must understand that any hope it has of settlement will only be achieved with the goodwill and consent of the people living on Gibraltar. If Spain is indeed using the Gibraltar dispute as a means of drumming up populist sentiment at the expense of the quality of life of Gibraltarians, this is a deeply cynical form of politics.

 97. With little prospect of reaching a settlement of the core sovereignty dispute, the UK Government’s task is to reach an acceptable status quo for the people on Gibraltar.At present, the status quo is far from acceptable, and there is a pervasive feeling in Gibraltar of being under siege by a bullying and unreasonable power, as well as frustration at the lack of progress.

98. However, the limited measures we have recommended in this report reflect the fact that the UK Government has a narrow scope for action in this regard. It would be counter-productive to engage in tit-for-tat squabbles and there is no desire on the part of the British or Gibraltarian governments to escalate the dispute. The most responsible course is for the Government to review and intensify the mechanisms for diplomatic pressure that it is already using, in light of the continuing provocation by the Spanish government. (my emphasis) In this context, we have recommend in this report that the UK Government should:

  • Robustly oppose Spain’s attempts to use international institutions
  • Revive efforts to remove Gibraltar from the UN list of non-self-governing Territories
  • Increase the speed with which it delivers diplomatic protests, and review criteria for summoning the ambassador
  • Identify areas of non-essential cooperation and make the UK’s support for Spain’s international initiatives dependent on improvements in Gibraltar.

99. Finally, while intensifying the diplomatic pressure, the Government should make clear to the Spanish Government that there is much goodwill between our peoples and a real desire on the part of the British government to re-start dialogue.”

All I can say is “good luck with that”.

It is time the United State – discretely – became involved. Discretely, because Spain is also an important ally for us and NATO, so it is not a question of gratuitously taking sides or infuriating them. No one is saying that Spain should drop their historic claims to Gibraltar and the stupid and counterproductive hindrances constantly imposed on the Spanish and Gibraltarians living on either side of the Line are not an area we should become involved it. What the US should pressure Spain on is a termination to the wholly detrimental policy of non-cooperation with military movements between the Rock and other NATO bases. A situation where this sort of behavior could potentially jeopardize or complicate US and alliance military operations is simply intolerable, and there is no reason for the risk to the lives of American sailors, Marines and airmen to be increased because of this retrograde policy. The fact that it has not yet happened does not guarantee that it will not in the future.

If Spain refuses, the US should consider additional measures and let Madrid know we are considering them. Openly supporting British efforts to have Gibraltar removed from the list of overseas colonies at the UN, which it is not, would be one measure. And if obstinacy continued, is it really impossible to consider a relocation of US assets to the Port of Lisbon (USN) and to Beja for the Marine Crisis Response Force – Africa? Both are almost as well situated as the current locations and the Portuguese are not at loggerheads with our closest ally or hosting Russian warships.


Sources and Notes

[i] Fernando Betancor, “Spain: The Russians Are Coming,” Common Sense, 22 June 2015

[ii] Sam LaGrone, “Spain and U.S. Sign Permanent Basing Agreement for up to 3,500 U.S. Marines,” USNI News, 18 June 2015

[iii] “Foreign Affairs Committee – Second Report Gibraltar: Time to get off the fence,” UK Parliament, 24 June 2014

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