Gibraltar: Fish, football and frontiers
Mariano Rajoy’s beleaguered government takes on Britain over the Rock.
By Alan Murphy
On September 25, Mariano Rajoy took the podium at the UN General Assembly in New York, where Spain was hoping to win a rotating seat on the Security Council. The Spanish prime minister chose the moment to press for joint talks with the UK about the sovereignty of Gibraltar. He called on London to “reinitiate bilateral dialogue on the decolonisation of Gibraltar… We have now lost too many years.”
Unsurprisingly, Spain failed to secure a seat on the Security Council, and London issued a waspish response, denying that decolonisation was even an appropriate concept: “The 2006 Gibraltar Constitution provides for a modern and mature relationship between Gibraltar and the UK. This description would not apply to any relationship based on colonialism. The United Kingdom … will never enter into arrangements under which the people of Gibraltar would pass under the sovereignty of another State against their wishes”.
This diplomatic spat, widely reported in Spain, was ignored utterly by the world press. But a week later the world sat up and took notice when European football authority UEFA agreed to allow Gibraltar to compete in the European Championship. In response, Spanish Education, Culture and Sports Minister José Ignacio Wert stated on October 2 that the Spanish government would “exhaust all legal means” to block Gibraltar’s acceptance as a national team.
In the weeks since, the Spanish pressure on Gibraltar has intensified. Guardia Civil officers at the border crossing have ensured ostentatious delays in allowing people to cross, with waits of up to six hours. The UK government has again protested at these “unacceptable delays”, which Spanish officials have said are caused by an ongoing anti-tobacco-smuggling operation.
Most dramatically, the conflict has escalated at sea. Gibraltar claims three miles of territorial waters which Spanish fishermen had been allowed to fish with licenses issued by the Gibraltar government. On August 16, that all changed. Gibraltar Chief Minister Fabian Picardo said that because of overfishing, no further fishing licenses would be issued.
Since then, fishing boats from Spain have been forced out of Gibraltarian waters by Gibraltarian police launches. Spain has lodged official protests, but the response from Leoncio Fernández, leader of fishermen’s association Cofradía de La Línea, was more defiant: “Fabian Picardo can do whatever he wants. We are going to carry on fishing and we have the support of other fishing ports in the province. If the matter escalates we will come in with 200 boats into the area all fishing together.” Expect the Great Fishing Armada any day now.
Serious strategy or political ploy?
What’s going on in Gibraltar? Is Rajoy’s campaign a serious attempt to wrest Gibraltar’s sovereignty from the UK, an effort most outside observers would consider futile? Is it a political strategy to appear firm in the eyes of the Spanish public? Or is it simply an old item left on the diplomatic agenda from a previous administration which is being taken up for lack of anything better to do?
Ten years ago, Spain’s claim to the sovereignty of Gibraltar was pushed to the brink by José María Aznar’s PP government. Madrid’s initiatives on the Rock, including an alleged €25-million secret slush fund for covert actions “to create a favourable opinion in Gibraltar”, were designed to pressure the UK to agree to joint UK-Spanish sovereignty of the territory. Tony Blair’s government was prepared to discuss this proposal at the Brussels talks and for a time in 2002 it looked like shared sovereignty was on the cards.
But the process was torpedoed by an unauthorised act of self-determination: Gibraltar, contrary to London’s wishes, organised a referendum which showed that 99 percent of Gibraltarians wished to remain British. The Gibraltar government insisted that any talks would have to include them and London, embarrassed by the demonstration of Gibraltarian popular will, agreed. But for Spain this was unacceptable: the Rock was a piece of Spanish territory, not a sovereign nation, and to include them in talks at the same level as Britain and Spain would be an admission of their statehood. The same view applies today regarding UEFA recognition of Gibraltar in international football, hence the robust response from Wert.
Aznar’s military adventure
The bilateral talks were stymied and the process died down, but not before it had raised hackles in Morocco and provoked an extraordinary response from Aznar. Morocco has always maintained that just as Gibraltar is a piece of Spain unjustly colonised by Britain, so too the Spanish cities of Ceuta and Melilla are Moroccan territories occupied by Spain. Morocco sent a paramilitary team to occupy the uninhabited coastal isle of Perejil, just off the Moroccan coast. Aznar responded by launching his own special forces mission to capture the Moroccans and reclaim the island. The whole process was hilariously satirised by a Guardian journalist who in August 2002 occupied the Isla de Ratas off Ibiza, invading by pedalo, and renamed it Stilton Island.
Nothing about Gibraltar was resolved in 2002, and the sovereignty issues were allowed quietly to slip off the Spanish agenda; Aznar, a new ally of the US-UK coalition in the 2003 Iraq War, had bigger fish to fry in the company of his erstwhile adversary Tony Blair. Zapatero’s Socialist government from 2004 to 2011 confined its pronouncements on Gibraltar to protests over nuclear submarines pulling into port. When Guardia Civil officers were arrested by Gibraltarian police after pursuing suspected drugs smugglers into Gibraltar in 2009, Interior Minister Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba personally phoned the Gibraltar Chief Minister to apologise. Now the mood music is far different.
There are signs that this dispute will be taken once more to the brink by Rajoy’s government. In May, Queen Sofía of Spain was due to attend her cousin Queen Elizabeth’s jubilee party in Windsor. Just 48 hours before the event, Rajoy’s government stepped in and cancelled her visit, citing “heightened tensions” between Britain and Spain over Gibraltar fishing rights. Queen Sofía, who had been looking forward to the family gathering, was reported to be deeply saddened. Though poor Sofía is a woman of no importance, the symbolism of Rajoy’s action was not lost on anyone. If preventing Gibraltar from becoming a sovereign territory means a war of sorts with Britain – a fishing war, a war of words – then Spain won’t flinch.
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