Once again Britain and Spain have been at loggerheads this week over a 2.6 square mile rock which the former has occupied and the other complained about for 300 years. It would be over-egging things to say the two countries are at daggers drawn over Gibraltar, but diplomatic relations have been cool to say the least after the Spanish authorities started stopping people going in and out of the British Overseas Territory and threatened to impose a fee for those who wanted to cross the frontier.
At first glance the central question in the sovereignty dispute over Gibraltar appears obvious, should Gibraltar be British or Spanish? It is a question that has been asked ever since Spain ceded sovereignty of the Rock, as it is known locally, to Britain under the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht. And it was a question that Spain attempted to answer through military force in the sieges of 1727 and 1779-83.
But from 1783, right through until the mid-1950s, the question of who should control Gibraltar was one that fell into abeyance. Spain did not have the military capacity to challenge the ascendant British Empire, and Britain, particularly after the expansion of Gibraltar’s dockyard at the end of the 19th century, had no intention of relinquishing a significant military and naval stronghold.
In 1954, General Franco’s dictatorship in Spain began to place pressure on the relationship between Gibraltar and Spain by making it difficult for Spaniards to obtain permits to work in Gibraltar. In part, this withdrawal of labour was a response to Queen Elizabeth II’s 1954 visit to Gibraltar during her Coronation Tour of the empire.
In 1969, after several years of continued restrictions at the frontier, the Franco government closed the land route from Spain to Gibraltar and instigated an economic blockade of the Rock which was only lifted in the mid-1980s. After 150 years of close co-operation between the authorities on both sides of the frontier, Franco raised the question again: should Gibraltar be British or Spanish?
In fact, this binary view of the issue of Gibraltar’s sovereignty completely misses the point because since 1713 a third party has become involved in the Gibraltar dispute: the Gibraltarians themselves.
Who are the Gibraltarians?
Far from being “Britain with more sun” as it is often portrayed, Gibraltar hosts a mix of ethnicities: its population of 29,000 (as at 2012) includes people of Italian, British, Spanish, Maltese, Portuguese, German, and North African origins. All of these nationalities, and others besides, contributed to the demographic development of the Gibraltarian people in the years after 1704. In addition, 10,000 Spanish nationals cross the border each day to work on the Rock.
In 1999 the then chief minister Peter Caruana asserted, in a speech to the UN, “that Gibraltar belongs to the people of Gibraltar and is neither Spain’s to claim, nor Britain’s to give away”.
A referendum held subsequently in 2002, after Britain and Spain had discussed shared sovereignty, found that 98.97% of the population was against Gibraltar being handed back to Spain.
Gibraltar finds its own voice
Back in 1713, little or no thought was given to the rights of those people who lived in colonial territories. Since then, things have changed considerably. As people flocked to the Rock to take part in the healthy trade which grew up around the needs of the garrison, a community was formed. The first residents of Gibraltar to express their interests in the place were members of the entrepreneurial community; they were quick to complain to the government in Britain about governors who stifled local trade in favour of military efficiency.
By the end of the 19th century, local workers' organisations were forming to defend and advance the interests of working-class Gibraltarians and during World War II, Gibraltar’s first political party was formed. The Association for the Advancement of Civil Rights (AACR) campaigned on behalf of those families who had been evacuated from the Rock during the war. In 1964, the AACR’s leader Joshua (later Sir Joshua) Hassan became Gibraltar’s first chief minister. The preamble to Gibraltar’s constitution, established in 1969, stated that the people of Gibraltar would not pass under the sovereignty of another state against their express wishes.
The recognition of the rights of Gibraltarians to have a say in their own governance was a significant factor in the decision to close the frontier in 1969. The consequences of the blockade for the people of Gibraltar were severe; many families were split between Gibraltar and its hinterland. News of new births, for example, was often heralded by family members shouting to each other across the neutral ground at the frontier. There were severe labour shortages on the Rock and between 1970 and 1981 the British government gave Gibraltar more than £25m in grants-in-aid to help sustain the local economy.
Recent attempts to stifle the flow of traffic over the Gibraltar frontier have evoked the atmosphere of Franco’s blockade. Gibraltar relies upon the 11m day-trippers who visit the Rock each year to sustain a tourism industry which, alongside off-shore finance and gambling companies, accounts for the vast majority of the income to the Gibraltar economy. Any hindrance to traffic at the frontier would have severe repercussions on tourism and, therefore, Gibraltar’s economy. So it is only natural that Gibraltar’s population worries about the prospect of another economic blockade. Such a turn of events would require the British government to give financial aid to Gibraltar which may be difficult in the present economic climate.
In 1986, Britain was able to force Spain to lift the blockade by making a return to an open frontier a condition of support for Spanish entry to the Common Market (now the EU) - it is difficult to see what similar leverage exists these days. But it is also important to remember that Franco’s economic blockade had an enormous effect on the economy of Gibraltar’s Spanish hinterland which did – and still does – depend heavily on Gibraltar’s economy. Both sides have an interest in keeping trade flowing.
Examining the sovereignty dispute through the prism of an age-old colonial dispute might keep the cogs of international diplomacy grinding, but it does a great disservice to the people of Gibraltar. It ignores the fact that on the Rock there is a distinct, if small, community of people whose right to self-determination is being denied. It also ignores the fact that if the current dispute escalates, it will be the Gibraltarians themselves who will suffer most.