Gibraltar stand-off: a storm in a cup of tea

Gibraltar stand-off: a storm in a cup of tea

What started as a row between aggrieved local Spanish fishermen and the Gibraltarian government over an artificial reef has escalated into an exchange of strong rhetoric between the Spanish and British governments.

The sovereignty over Gibraltar has been a bone of contention in Spanish-British relations for 300 years. The Treaty of Utrecht (1713), which ceded the territory to Britain in perpetuity, has in fact never ended Spanish sovereignty claims. But since Spain’s entry in the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1986, and thanks to the freedom of movement, Gibraltar has been visited by armies of peaceful Spanish tourists.

Unfortunately these days, the prosperous British territory is once again the subject of an escalating diplomatic row.

In a retaliatory move to the sinking of 70 concrete blocks in British waters which Spain sees as its own the government of PM Rajoy took the controversial decision to impose burdensome border checks, occasioning hours of delay mostly for Spanish commuters working for Gibraltarian companies. Worryingly, Spain is showing no sign of wanting to de-escalate a crisis many in the UK view as a diversion from problems at home (corruption scandals and a disastrous economic situation).

It is indeed difficult for Madrid to claim that its actions are solely motivated by fishing rights and the protection of the environment. In “normative Europe”, a member state has the option of a legal challenge before the European Court of Justice in order to resolve internal market disputes. Spain’s beleaguered government has chosen confrontation.

In London, the move has been described as “politically motivated and disproportionate, and contrary to the EU right of free movement”. PM Cameron has called for an EU monitoring mission to be sent. Border monitors are routinely sent to conflict areas outside Fortress Europe but to the town of La Linea which is within the EU? The mind boggles.

With HMS Westminster due to dock at Gibraltar, the Spanish media has gone into a frenzy of hyperboles describing the dispatching of this “armada” as a threat and an insult to national pride. No official comments have been issued over this display of British naval power but Spanish fishermen have seen fit to stage their own “armada of anger,” only to be repelled by a Royal Navy and Gibraltar Police naval operation.

It is not clear how far the Spanish government intends to go. If a new siege is surely not being considered, the internationalization of the dispute appears to be. Spanish and British media are abuzz with the rumor of an alliance with Argentina whose own contentious with Britain over the Falklands has recently flared up in the form of unconvincing and ineffective rant by its populist president.

Not that a Spanish case against the UK before the UN Commission for decolonization would be credible. With two enclaves on Moroccan territory (Ceuta and Melilla) Spain has no intention to hand over, it is not in a position to give lessons.

History cannot always be undone. Gibraltar is British. In the 2002 referendum Gibraltarians rejected the joint-sovereignty deal proposed to them and voted overwhelmingly to remain British subjects. Their right to self-determination is unquestionable.

In 21st Century Kantian peace Europe, you would be forgiven to think that the days of power politics and “armadas” were over. Spain’s behavior is now challenging this view. Frankly speaking, this is a crisis neither the EU nor Spain can afford. So let’s keep calm and move on.

*Sophie Quintin Adalı is an analyst for, the francophone project of the Atlas Economic Research Foundation.