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Waters of Gibraltar

The tough line on the Rock aims to spark fresh dialogue with London, but its effects are uncertain

With Gibraltar “the party of the Moratinos era is over,” in the words of Spain’s current foreign minister, José Manuel García-Margallo. He was referring to the Tripartite Forum (Madrid-London-Gibraltar) set up nine years ago on the initiative of Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s foreign minister Míguel Ángel Moratinos to resolve the various problems of the inhabitants on both sides of the enclave’s boundary in a consensual manner.

If Margallo means that this forum has failed to solve the problem of Gibraltar (a question of de-colonization, as the United Nations has recognized), he is quite right, provided he admits that previous attempts to exert pressure on the inhabitants of the Rock also failed, as when Madrid decided to shut the boundary gate in 1969.

Now, says the ministry, we are back to tough talk in response to the recent episode of the sinking, by decision of the local authorities, of dozens of massive concrete blocks into the waters of Gibraltar Bay to obstruct the work of local Spanish fishermen who use trawl nets in the area.

However, the ministry’s U-turn has a deeper cause: the conservative government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy does not accept Moratinos’ strategy (it will negotiate only with London, and not with the colony), and thinks the time has come for a more forceful response to what it sees as a lack of will to negotiate several matters concerning the colony.

It is true that the authorities of the colony have been using a policy of fait accompli to occupy the isthmus for the construction of an airport, and that certain recent initiatives show their intention of doing the same with respect to jurisdiction over part of the waters of the bay.

This is an attitude that calls for a response, and for negotiation. However, it seems doubtful that the scrapping of the instrument already created to this end is the right course to take. The tactic of making life more difficult for the inhabitants of the zone (restriction of flights, border crossing fees, rigorous border checks causing waits of up to five hours) may have undesired effects.

Not only the locals suffer these inconveniences — so do thousands of Spanish people who go to work in Gibraltar every day. The viability of such measures within the context of the European Union also remains to be seen.

Goodwill needed on both sides

Spain must defend its interests, but without poisoning its relations with the United Kingdom, which are just as important for the interests of the Spanish public as the legitimate aspiration to recover Spanish sovereignty over the Rock.

To advance toward this recovery it is necessary to keep up a long-term policy of good relations with the colony’s 29,000 inhabitants. Because, as the United Nations’ position in the problem has shown, any decision must after all be ratified by the inhabitants. To this it might be added that for each foreign minister to reverse his predecessor’s policy hardly seems to be a useful approach. Dialogue and goodwill on both sides is what Gibraltar needs.

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