The much-needed agreement between Madrid and London over Gibraltar must be arrived at via Brussels, especially given that the forums for dialogue between the two countries, and those in which the Rock’s authorities and Andalusia could also play a part, are not working. This goes for the three-century-old dispute over sovereignty and the problems of a more local nature that have arisen between the populations on both sides of the border. These conflicts, which are small but persistent, poison relations between Spain and Britain, pushing back not just any solution for the deep-seated problem, but even any possibility of discussion.
UK Prime Minister David Cameron has reiterated that any negotiation over sovereignty must have the blessing of Gibraltarians. This comfortable position allows London to dodge the real issue — which is not one of self-determination/independence, but rather a question of territorial reunification, just as it is in Ireland. In both cases, the desires of the local populations must be taken into account, but they cannot be the only factor. Spain’s strategy with regard to the inhabitants of the Rock has oscillated between two approaches: one, an attempt to make their lives difficult in order to prod them toward a desire for a deal; and second, on the contrary, to bring them around to the idea of a friendly exit from the impasse (shared sovereignty or broad political autonomy) by establishing favorable conditions for their day-to-day existence. Neither of the two approaches has brought any success whatsoever.
At present, we are seeing Spain taking a version of its hard line, with the tempering factor of the attempt to induce the EU to help broker accords on nuts-and-bolts issues. The European Commission has agreed to send a delegation of observers who will analyze the various sides’ respective grievances. For Spain, these are the sinking of the famous 70 concrete blocks in local fishing grounds, at-anchor bunkering of shipping fuel and a tax regime which favors contraband activities and money laundering; and for the Gibraltarians, police controls which collapse traffic on the border and the threat of charging a fee for the crossing. The fact that these are specific problems at least means there is a chance of reaching an agreement that will cool the tensions of recent weeks.
Brussels does not have the authority to intervene in questions of sovereignty, but it does have powers to regulate the application of European rules. Even if it cannot act as a mediator per se, the Commission can work to defend the shared interests of two member states. Last week saw the publication of new data on tourist arrivals in Spain: British citizens were way out in front with a figure of 13.6 million out of a total of 57.7 million (23.6 percent).