Gibraltar: a 300-year-old debate

As the Rock marks its tercentenary, the discussion over its status continues to burn Fishing altercations, tax spats and the UK’s EU membership are all in the mix

Gibraltar marks the 300-year anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht with a gun salute in John Mackintosh Square.
Gibraltar marks the 300-year anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht with a gun salute in John Mackintosh Square.MARCOS MORENO

The recovery of Gibraltar has always been one of the causes closest to the hearts of Spanish nationalists, but Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, of the conservative Popular Party, has barely brought up the subject of the Rock with his British counterpart David Cameron. When the Spanish prime minister visited 10 Downing Street in February 2012, both host and guest left the issue in the hands of their aides in order to concentrate on more high-flying matters, such as the G-20 and the European Union.

Nevertheless at the last European Council, Cameron reprimanded Rajoy over the shots allegedly fired by civil guards during a pursuit in waters adjoining the Rock. It mattered little that the Civil Guard had denied the incident took place. Cameron repeated the version given by Gibraltar Chief Minister Fabian Picardo, passing it on to both Rajoy and the press.

For years the Spanish government has wanted to sit down with the UK to directly debate Gibraltar, which celebrated its 300th anniversary at the weekend. Thus Cameron’s own mention of the topic seemed to deliver a perfect opportunity. But Rajoy opted to push the matter to one side.

The surprising thing is that a discussion about Gibraltar, which has a population of 30,000, could prove more profitable for Cameron than Rajoy, even though the vast majority of Spaniards share the view of Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo, who a short time after assuming his position reportedly told a British Conservative Eurodeputy: “¡Gibraltar español!” [“Gibraltar is Spanish!”]


August 4, 1704. Gibraltar is occupied by an Anglo-Dutch fleet during the War of the Spanish Succession.
July 13, 1713. Spain hands ownership of the Rock to Britain.
1810. The British expansion in the isthmus begins.
1938. The airport is built. It is later extended during World War II.
September 10, 1967. Referendum: 12,130 votes for the UK, 44 for Spain.
June 8, 1969. Franco orders the border to be closed.
December 14, 1982. The border reopens.
November 27, 1984. The Brussels Agreement. Madrid and London agree to negotiate on sovereignty.
November 20, 2001. Pre-agreement on shared sovereignty.
November 7, 2002. An overwhelming 98.97 percent of Gibraltarians reject co-sovereignty.

According to experts, the attitude of Cameron demonstrates that the influence of the Gibraltar lobby far exceeds the colony’s demographic importance, and that the vestiges of empire still have a solid electoral anchoring back home.

In these conditions Margallo’s Foreign Ministry has followed the line of not giving an inch on Spain’s traditional positions and, to the extent that it can, recovering the ground lost during the previous government.

The PP government has ended the so-called tripartite forum — which brought representatives from Madrid, London and the Rock together around the same table — and in its place suggested a forum featuring two or three groups, in which the leading role of Picardo would be offset by the presence of the Andalusian regional government and Campo de Gibraltar local authorities. Under pressure from the Gibraltarians, the British Foreign Office has point blank refused to take part.

Now, with the bridges burnt, hostilities have extended to all fronts, the most visible being that of fishing. The Gibraltar police harass Spanish boats fishing in waters that they consider theirs and the Civil Guard goes to protect them in a game of cat and mouse that could end badly on any day.

Madrid and London have managed to get the EU to entrust them with the protection of the marine environment surrounding the Rock but, even though their responsibilities overlap and the areas adjoin each other, each party applies their own rules — and there is no agreement to homogenize them.

The Spanish Foreign Ministry has revived the ban leaving Gibraltar out of the single European airspace — alleging that it has not fulfilled a 2006 agreement on joint use of the airport — but is unable to revise the directives passed in recent years.

The battle has even reached the world of sport: after 16 years of trying, Gibraltar has succeeded in joining Uefa, the organization that runs European soccer. Meanwhile, Spain has found itself left out of the European Rugby Association.

The biggest issue, however, is the fiscal one. The European Court of Justice revoked the 2002 Gibraltar tax system, which since then has been replaced by the Gibraltar Income Tax Act 2010. Spain has also filed a complaint against this legislation with the European Commission, believing it will enjoy the same luck it had with the previous one. Although Picardo insists the Rock is no longer a tax haven — and points to a score of agreements relating to the exchange of fiscal information it has signed — the Spanish authorities have kept it on their own blacklist, convinced its prosperity (7.8 percent annual growth) is not unconnected to its perceived status as a parasitic financial area feeding off Spain.

Now, with the bridges burnt, hostilities have extended to all fronts

Experts think it is highly unlikely that Britain is considering giving up the colony in the medium term; among other reasons because since the beginning of the 1990s it has been financially self-sufficient and does not cost the British treasury a single pound.

Nor is it likely that Gibraltarians — who have an average income of 47,000 euros a year compared with 17,000 in Andalusia — will feel the urge to move closer to Spain.

Then again, maybe they will. The sources consulted say Gibraltarians are worrying about Cameron’s announcement that he will submit Britain’s continuing membership of the EU to a referendum in 2017. Even though the prime minister says he wants to remain in Europe, nobody can be sure about the result and, if the UK ends up leaving, it will take Gibraltar with it. The Rock remains outside of the euro, the Schengen Area of countries without border controls, the customs union and the common agricultural and fisheries policies. But it does get some advantages from the EU. The latest one: 10.5 million euros from the 2014-20 European budget.

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