And now Spain eyes up Gibraltar

Swiftly following Argentina's sabre-rattling over the Falklands, Spain is now staking a claim to Gibraltar. Fortunately, as with the Falklands, it's another non-starter

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One of many inhabitants who firmly believe Gibraltar to be British
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Peter Cannon
On 8 March 2012 11:56

As if the UK did not have enough trouble with Argentina demanding that Britain hand over the Falkland Islands, Spain has started agitating once again on the subject of Gibraltar. The foreign minister of the new Spanish government elected in November, Jose Manuel Garcia Margallo, gave us a flavour of this when he greeted a British Conservative MEP with the slogan "Gibraltar, Español!"

The new centre-right Popular Party government has called for bilateral negotiations between the Spanish and British governments over the British overseas territory - without including the elected government of Gibraltar. Garcia Margallo has said that the trilateral Dialogue Forum (between the British, Spanish and Gibraltar governments, and which did not discuss sovereignty) “is dead”. Instead, he wants a return to the bilateral EU-inspired ‘Brussels process’.

Like Argentina, Spain also seems to want to take this dispute, once again, to the UN. Speaking after the recent Somalia conference in London, Garcia Margallo said: "There’s no need for a prophet or a Pulitzer Prize to know that in the coming UN session, Malvinas and Gibraltar will be discussed and that the UN will again reiterate that we must sit and negotiate”.

Like Argentina, the Spanish government seems to think it can act without reference to the wishes of the population. Garcia Margallo commented that the cases of the Falklands and Gibraltar “look alike because they are included in the UN list of territories subject to decolonization; because the principle of self-determination is not applicable." He added that he would write to the British Government to formally reject the principle that the Gibraltarians themselves should have the right to veto any negotiations.

Given that Gibraltar is democratically self-governing and that the population has overwhelmingly rejected the idea of Spanish and British shared sovereignty in referenda in 1967 and 2002, this approach is somewhat ridiculous and blatantly anti-democratic. In case anyone needs reminding, the 2002 Gibraltar referendum on the principle of shared sovereignty between the UK and Spain resulted in a 98.5 percent No vote. This effectively killed the Labour government’s attempts to do a deal with Spain cold dead.

Unfortunately, the ghost of Labour governments past has reared its head in an attempt to resurrect the prospect of a deal. In October 2011, following an agreement to base U.S. anti-missile warships at Rota, former Europe minister Denis MacShane MP wrote in the Spanish newspaper El Mundo: “London must now ask itself seriously if its constant refusal to discuss a new agreement on Gibraltar has any strategic sense, when Madrid has moved on to occupy the place as the main ally of the US in the area of defence."

Negotiating over a prosperous, peaceful and democratic territory (and military base) that has been British for over three centuries against the wishes of its people makes no strategic sense whatsoever, particularly when the UK is facing aggressive claims on another one of its territories. Given the overwhelming 98.5 percent rejection of the principle of any sharing of sovereignty between the UK and Spain by the Gibraltarian people in the 2002 referendum, any attempt to reach another agreement with Spain over their heads would be a shameful betrayal. The idea is frankly a non-starter.

Unfortunately for Denis Macshane and for Spain, Gibraltar also has a new government which is, if anything, even more resolutely opposed to giving any concessions to Spain than the previous one. The new Socialist chief minister Fabian Picardo was quite blunt in his response to Spain’s latest demands: "We are always hopeful that Spain will follow us into the 21st Century and drop its claim on our land... it seems to me the Spanish have other more important priorities than historic claims over my people."

As it is, Spain’s historic claims are pretty weak: Gibraltar has been a British territory since 1704 and was formally ceded by Spain to the UK in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. Picardo even invited Spain to have the courage of convictions and try to bring its case to court, saying “Gibraltar would be delighted to counter Spain’s views. Our claims to self-determination are unanswerable in international law – I have no doubt about that.” 

Even before the election of the new governments, relations were already ‘rocky’

following clashes between Spanish and Gibraltarian police boats and the attempt by Crown Prince Felipe of Spain to pressure Prince Charles over sovereignty during  a royal visit.

Thankfully, the current British prime minister, foreign secretary and Europe minister have been unanimous in backing Gibraltar’s right to remain British, and have let this be known to Spanish prime minister Mariano Roy. Picardo thanked them for supporting Gibraltar “in the face of the intransigent Spanish insistence on the anachronistic claim over the sovereignty of the Rock and the clamour for the revival of the ‘dead and buried’ Brussels Process.”

‘Dead and buried’ – that is exactly what the suggestion of negotiating on Gibraltar over the heads of the Gibraltarians should be.

Peter Cannon is a Research Associate at the Henry Jackson Society

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