Spain's Gibraltar games, and EU folly

The incident is more evidence the EU’s goal of a complicated system of overlapping loyalties arising in Europe from the abolition of borders is flawed and unworkable

British Gibraltar
Tom Gallagher
On 1 August 2013 11:37

Last weekend, the incidents at the border between Spain and Gibraltar may have had the hallmarks of a summer squabble between two normally friendly nations. Without warning, Spanish police imposed severe restrictions on traffic, resulting in six hour delays and causing hardship for the elderly, children and the unwell in searing temperatures.

The tension was only abated when David Cameron contacted his Spanish counterpart and demanded that the harassment of people entering and leaving this British territory on the Iberian peninsula cease forthwith.

Arguably, the incident is yet further evidence that the EU’s goal of a complicated system of overlapping loyalties arising in Europe from the abolition of borders is flawed and unworkable.

Spain wants Gibraltar back even though it has been a British crown territory for exactly 300 years – that is since the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 when it ceded the town and harbor of Gibraltar ‘forever, without any exception or impediment whatsoever’.

By the time Robin Cook was Foreign Secretary after 1997, influential British policy-makers saw Britain’s presence there as an anachronism.  This was a time when ‘multi-national sovereignty’ courtesy of the EU enjoyed tremendous vogue in New Labour Britain. Cook saw Britain blossoming into a post-traditional ‘gathering of countless different races and communities’.

So the  overwhelming loyalty of the 30,000 Gibraltarians to the British connection appeared quaint and even distasteful.

Gibraltar’s past role in enabling Britain to use its maritime strength to foil the plans of the Nazis to subdue all of Europe was pettifogging history. Cook and his successor as Foreign Secretary Jack Straw probably had no idea that the main reason why the Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco remained neutral in the Second World War was that Hitler refused to concede a shopping list of territorial demands with Gibraltar at the top.

As the historian Brendan Simms pointed out recently, ‘it was not Franco’s restraint that kept Spain out of the war, but Hitler’s’.  

Franco tried to generate popularity for his dictatorship by using a war of nerves after 1960 to drive Britain off ‘ the Rock’. Under Tony Blair, Britain tried to hustle the Gibraltarians into a co-sovereignty deal with Spain. A referendum was called by the territory’s government in 2002 which Straw branded as an ‘eccentric’ move. The locals disagreed. 98.48 per cent of the electorate rejected Britain’s gambit on an 87.9 percent turnout.

Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s Prime Minister has resumed the hardball tactics of his brutal Galician predecessor. But it is the desperate move of a cornered politician.  He is assailed by a slush fund scandal he cannot explain away and Spain’s economy sinks deeper into the mire due, to no small degree, to being trapped in the single currency.

Last summer Rajoy assumed that because of the weight Spain exercised in the EU, it should receive the loans already given to Portugal, Greece  and Ireland without any of the onerous conditions. According to the editor of one Spain’s leading daily newspapers, El Mundo, at the height of tense negotiations, Rajoy texted his finance minister Luis de Guindos, ordering him to ‘ ‘Resist, we are the 4th power of the EZ [Eurozone]. Spain is not Uganda.’

A follow-up message has been translated as: ‘We are powerful, and if they don't give in, the whole thing will go down. It will cost Europe 500 billion if Spain goes bust, and then another 700 billion if Italy goes bust’.

Arguably, instead of disappearing, national ambitions and the threats that are used to seek their realization, have been formalized within a messy EU system of power-sharing in which core states have built-in advantages.  

Spanish fishing activities in the waters of northern Europe, and the inability of the EU to impose an effective check because of the leverage enjoyed by Spain in its affairs, has greatly eroded European solidarity. The size of the Spanish fishing fleet and the long-term success of Spanish governments in giving it a privileged place in European fishing policy, has tarnished relations with Britain and Ireland.

The collapse of fish stocks and the decline of communities which for centuries derived an existence from fishing, has not been a wake-up call for the EU. Spain successfully over-rode the Commission in 2002 by using its Commission member (who the rules state must not act in the national interest), to tilt EU fishing policy in Spain’s favour.

A phone calls from the then Spanish Prime Minister Aznar to Romano Prodi, head of the European Commission, ensured there was no reprimand for Spain and instead it was the Dane in charge of fishing policy who was dismissed (though his salary continued to be paid).

Numerous other displays of national muscle indicate that the European Union is hardly on any superior, moral post-national plane. Stripping away the lofty rhetoric about solidarity and enhanced unity, infighting and low blows have accompanied each stage of this marathon crisis.

It was not so different at the start of the 1930s. France’s Prime Minister Aristide Briand in May 1930 unfurled a plan for a European Federal Union in which French sovereignty would be traded for permanent restraints on German power. But, in 1931 after Germany signed a trade agreement with Austria, from sheer pique France deployed her  economic muscle to bring down the largest Austrian bank, the Wiener Kreditanstalt, the following May.

This led to a German banking crisis and helped pave the way for the rise of Adolf Hitler.

In numerous ways, the crisis of the Eurozone shows that the EU has not ushered in a new, mature phase of international relations. Instead, it has allowed neurotic great power reflexes fresh outlets and with its misguided approach of ‘ever closer union’ ensured that they now collide against each other on a regular basis.

Tom Gallagher’s book, Divided Scotland: Ethnic Friction and Christian Crisis has just been  published

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