Spain and Britain Renew Dispute over Gibraltar

Spain and Britain Renew Dispute over Gibraltar

The UK has called in EU officials to Gibraltar to look into Spain’s heightened border controls in the area; in possible violation of EU free movement rules.

The centuries-long dispute between Spain and Britain over the 6.8 km2 (2.6 sq. mile) outcrop at the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula known as ‘the Rock’ has made international headlines once more. Just last week, a group of European Commission (EC) officials traveled to the region to investigate what Gibraltar and Britain claim to be violations of the EU’s free movement in the form of tightened border inspections on the Spanish side.

The move caused an outcry and hours-long waiting lines along the 1.2km (0.75 mile) border for tourists, workers and goods moving to and from the British territory. Spain also threatened to charge a border crossing fee of €50 ($66 USD) but there have been no indications of this actually being implemented. Because Britain is not a signatory to the Schengen Agreement, both Spain and Gibraltar are compelled to undertake border controls.

While Spain has shied away from the connection, the current standoff can arguably be traced to the early August decision by Gibraltar to drop some 74 concrete blocks into the shallow waters off its coast for what it says is a plan to stimulate the growth of an artificial reef and rehabilitate fish stocks depleted by Spanish over-fishing. The inspectors from the EC’s home affairs, customs union, justice and anti-fraud departments, came to investigate the tightened border inspections and will present a report on their findings at an unspecified date.

The current tensions are a result of, by most accounts, a Spanish effort of some three hundred years to claim back territory ceded to Britain in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht. The Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, in his address to the UN General Assembly last week, stated that the territory was an “anachronism” affecting Spain’s territorial integrity.

Complicating matters further is what the Spanish call a British encroachment on land not mentioned in the Treaty – the 800 meter isthmus connecting the peninsula to the Rock – which the British claim through continuous possession over a long period of time. While Spain insists that Gibraltar is the last European colony, the territory of 30,000 inhabitants voted overwhelmingly in favor of remaining a part of Britain in 2002. The territory is also largely self-governed, but its foreign and defense policies are set by Britain.

The central argument made by Spanish authorities about the latest round of tensions revolves around contraband smuggling and, specifically, cigarettes, which are 40 percent cheaper in Gibraltar than in Spain. The Spanish Interior Minister, Jorge Fernández Díaz, said in August that Gibraltar “last year imported 140 million packs of tobacco,” while the “population of the colony, or visitors and tourists, [clearly] did not smoke that amount.”

Spain has also raised concerns that Gibraltar is soft on tax evasion and money laundering. In a cable published by Wikileaks in 2008, a Spanish official expressed concern to American diplomats that “laundered money associated with Spain’s Costa de Sol housing boom has been moved to accounts in Gibraltar, where Spain has no access.”

Yet, some 7,000 Spaniards travel to work in Gibraltar every day. For an economy that has struggled to turn around unemployment rates hovering above 26 percent (56 percent for youth), this is no small number. The latest border restrictions, argue many, indiscriminately harm those hard-working Spaniards along with the tobacco smugglers. Others have pointed at the Spanish move as the latest bout of political grandstanding, deployed to distract from Madrid’s failed economic policies and political scandals.

More pointedly, accusations of hypocrisy have been leveled at Spain, which holds two enclaves akin to Gibraltar on the north coast of Africa: Ceuta and Melilla. Territorial integrity, which has been central to the Spanish argument over Gibraltar, is one that Morocco has equally,and unsuccessfully, brought up with respect to the Spanish enclaves. In reviving the debate with Britain but keeping Morocco at bay, can Spain realistically expect to have its proverbial cake and eat it too?

Looking beyond the provocative and retaliatory measures displayed by all sides in this dispute, perhaps a more interesting question concerns the institutions that could address it and what such a process should look like. Would the United Nations be the proper forum? Argentina currently holds a rotating seat on the UN Security Council and could be a natural ally for Spain should it pursue the case (see: Falklands War). Could the International Court of Justice settle this three hundred-year issue for good? Or is the European Union’s stop-gap measure around border inspections all the effort the dispute deserves at this particular time?

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Sanja Davidovic

Sanja is an international development professional whose research and writing focuses on issues of political economy of conflict, state building and security sector reform. She holds a Master of Science from the London School of Economics in International Development and Humanitarian Emergencies and a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations from Fairfield University.