Dire Straits?

Territorial disputes and diplomatic standoffs between NATO allies and fellow European Union member states are unusual, not least when the disagreement essentially concerns a 300 year-old treaty.

Image courtesy of Snapp, © 2001, some rights reserved

Image courtesy of Snapp, © 2001, some rights reserved

Whilst the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht established UK sovereignty over the tiny territory of Gibraltar, Spain has long claimed the British exclave as its own. In echoes of the escalating international tensions over the Falklands Islands, the long-standing dispute has become more heated in recent months, with both sides pointing fingers and alleging injustices.

This most recent episode in the Gibraltar saga began with angry protests from Spain over the Gibraltarian Government’s dumping of dozens of concrete blocks in disputed waters, a measure apparently intended as part of efforts to construct an artificial reef which would help fish populations. The Spanish Government loudly expressed fears that this would disadvantage Spanish fishermen, and soon afterwards Gibraltarians making their regular journeys into Spain for work and leisure found themselves having to wait up to seven hours at the border crossing.

We are to believe that the dramatically increased checks are a coincidence – Spain denies that its actions are in retaliation, instead citing vague concerns over tobacco smuggling. European Union observers have been sent in to monitor the border crossing after complaints from the UK.

Spain’s concerns over fishing rights may be legitimate, but its longstanding claim to ownership is perhaps less so.

Its denial of British sovereignty may seem hypocritical given its continued rule over two possessions, Ceuta and Melilla, just across the water in North Africa, surrounded on all sides and claimed by Morocco.

Spain’s claim to Gibraltar, like Argentina’s over the Falklands, also ignores the clear and repeatedly expressed will of the people who live in the territory to remain exclusively under British sovereignty. A referendum in 2002 on the principle of sovereignty sharing between Spain and the UK saw 98.5% of Gibraltarians reject the proposals.

The UK Government’s stance that the people of Gibraltar should be the ones to decide the sovereign status of their home is sound and unlikely to change any time soon.

One typical complaint from people in Spain over Gibraltar’s status is that the territory is effectively a tax haven, home to the brass plate of many an international corporation. This status allows the large number of residents who live in Gibraltar but work in Spain to benefit from lower rates than their colleagues. Many argue that the Gibraltarians’ preference for British sovereignty effectively amounts to tax avoidance.

Since the Franco era, Spanish schoolchildren have grown up learning about Spain’s rightful ownership of Gibraltar. As in Argentina with the Falklands, generations of Spaniards are wholly convinced that their nation has been done an injustice by Britain, and that Gibraltar should be returned to Spain.

And like Argentina’s posturing, it seems clear that the intensification of Spain’s rhetoric serves a greater purpose than the age-old territorial dispute. Amid soaring unemployment rates and joblessness amongst young people particularly high, a nationalistic standoff with Britain would help distract an increasingly discontent population from the country’s economic woes.

But despite this, it is highly unlikely that Spain’s tensions with the UK will escalate to anything near the level of the Anglo-Argentinian row that continues to brew over the Falklands. The administration of Christina Fernandez de Kirchner was left embarrassed last month when Spain denied claims made by her foreign ministry that the two nations had agreed joint actions against the UK on their respective territorial disputes.

Whilst Spain had initially signalled its intention to work with the South American state in the United Nations to press their sovereignty agendas, it seems that the criticism it has received from European Union allies, especially over the border controls issue, has tempered its stance.

And while the memory of war with Britain is very real and the sense of entitlement to the Falkland Islands is very strong for many in Argentina, the prospect of serious conflict in Europe remains unthinkable, almost laughable for people in Spain.

That said, there are concerns that the resurgence of the Gibraltar dispute could harm relations between the two NATO allies. One UK Foreign Office insider told the Financial Times last month of concerns that the issue could come to dominate dialogue and hinder efforts to work with Spain on more pressing issues of economic and security cooperation. In the age of European unity, it seems improbable that this will be the case.

Indeed, it is unlikely that the latest episode will come of much. Headlines come and go, and European pressure will probably force Spain to refrain from the excessive border checks. The fishing dispute, however, will take longer to resolve.

It seems doubtful that the Gibraltar flashpoint will pose many serious problems for the UK Government – policy-makers and politicians should be more worried about Argentina’s intentions towards the Falkland Islands. The rhetoric coming out of South America is far more alarming than anything the Spanish Government can muster, and Argentina has proven itself far more adept at organising its neighbours on the continent to back it up than Spain has been able to garner European support.

Spain’s current dispute with the UK over Gibraltar will in all probability be settled in the same way most disputes between European Union member states are – in boardroom discussions between diplomats and statesmen.

Argentina’s actions, however, remain far less predictable.