Gibraltar Will Never Accept Shared Sovereignty

The Spanish government seems to think the British overseas territory will sacrifice its sovereignty for the sake of convenience after Brexit. It is wrong.

The flags of the United Kingdom, Gibraltar, and the European Union are flown with the Rock of Gibraltar in the background at the Spain-Gibraltar border on April 4, 2017. (Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images)
The flags of the United Kingdom, Gibraltar, and the European Union are flown with the Rock of Gibraltar in the background at the Spain-Gibraltar border on April 4, 2017. (Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images)

In a Jan. 30 article in Foreign Policy, Mark Nayler questions whether the United Kingdom’s anticipated exit from the European Union could signal the end of unfettered British sovereignty over Gibraltar. Nayler does more than simply consider the prospects of this eventuality. He also questions whether it might be “time” for Gibraltar to reconsider its historic rejection of any form of Spanish control in the context of Spain’s recently enhanced offer of joint sovereignty over the Rock—an offer now repackaged as Gibraltar’s apparent solution to the Brexit conundrum.

Nayler is wrong in coming to that conclusion, but I sympathize with him. I can understand why, approaching the question as one of logic or arithmetic, he sees “considerable advantages” in the Spanish offer.

Let’s face it: As Nayler points out, Gibraltarians voted 96 percent to remain a part of the EU in the 2016 referendum. In return for joint U.K.-Spanish control over Gibraltar, Spain would supposedly allow Gibraltar to continue to benefit from frictionless access to the EU single market. Its citizens, having the option to obtain Spanish nationality, would have their rights to freedom of movement preserved. As former Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo put it, and as Nayler seems to agree, it is supposedly a “win-win” for all.

But it is not as simple as that. Looking at the question through theoretical or logistical spectacles blurs factors that are far more important. Factors that, to Gibraltar and the Gibraltarians, are existential. Feelings that make up the fabric of the society in which we, the Gibraltarians, live. Emotions that we have grown up with and experiences that our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents have endured. It is the Gibraltarian identity. An identity cast over generations dating back to 1704. It is our way of life, the elements that make us a people.

Gibraltar did not solely vote 96 percent to remain in the EU. Nayler fails to appreciate that Gibraltar voted for much more than that. Gibraltar voted 96 percent to remain because its voters knew if Gibraltar were outside of the EU, the Spanish government would relaunch a diplomatic offensive. Indeed, in the run-up to the referendum, the Spanish government made it unequivocally clear that this would be the case. We therefore voted to remain not because we have a romantic infatuation with the EU but to prevent the Spanish attempts and advances we are seeing today. In essence, we voted to protect our identity.

It is true that the stakes are high, but we have been here before. This is, unfortunately, nothing new. The Rock has shown resolve when caught in the hardest of places. During the 18th century, despite suffering three separate sieges at the hands of Spain, Gibraltar remained British. Blockaded by land and sea and faced with death by starvation, Gibraltar did not give in. During World War II, our entire civilian population was evacuated from Gibraltar out of fear of a Spanish-assisted German invasion. We survived. Fast-forward to September 1967.

Spain, then ruled by a fascist dictator, Gen. Francisco Franco, presented the Gibraltarians with a choice, the fundamental element of which is similar to the choice touted today: to pass under Spanish sovereignty. Knowing full well what the consequences would be, our hands did not tremble at the ballot box. Armed with a paper and a pencil, Gibraltarians voted 99.6 percent to remain British. In retaliation, Franco closed the border, families were separated, terrestrial links to Spain were torn, and labor, food, and hospital supplies had to be sourced from Morocco and elsewhere. This modern-day siege lasted more than 13 years.

Ironically, while some thought that Gibraltar would fall like a ripe fruit, the bonds that unite us as a people grew even stronger during that time. This is precisely what we celebrate on Gibraltar National Day, on Sept. 10 each year: the anniversary of that first referendum. And if the result of the first referendum was not clear enough, Gibraltar again, in 2002, voted 99 percent against the principle that Britain and Spain should share sovereignty over Gibraltar. In more recent times, Spain has done nothing to win the favor of the Gibraltarians.

Our Gibraltarian identity is nonnegotiable. We are not Spanish. Our homeland is not up for sale. We enjoy a modern constitutional relationship with the U.K., which affords us autonomy in every policy area other than external affairs and defense. We will not compromise on that, and we will never pay with our sovereignty in return for normal coexistence with our neighbors across the border.

Nayler refers to Gibraltar as a “disputed patch of land.” However, just because Spain lays claim to Gibraltar does not mean that the dispute is legitimate. Gibraltar is indisputably British. In a case involving Gibraltar as recently as 2016, the international Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that “under public international law the sovereignty of Gibraltar is clearly British,” that “no actual legal dispute is presently pending,” and that “there is no legitimate dispute, as Spain ceded Gibraltar to the United Kingdom in 1713 pursuant to Article X of the Treaty of Utrecht.” The only reason why there is no other jurisprudence on this point is that Spain refused a formal offer from the U.K. in 1966 to settle the question of Gibraltar’s status at the International Court of Justice. One can only infer why that was the case. Spain’s sophistic arguments over the isthmus could also have been resolved then.

Separately, while it is true that Brexit, if not managed appropriately, could have ramifications at two borders—the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland and the border between Gibraltar and Spain—the dynamics at these borders are very different. When the U.K. and Gibraltar joined the EU, then the European Economic Community, in 1973, it was agreed that Gibraltar would not form part of the EU’s common commercial policy.

Gibraltar is therefore already outside of the customs union, and there are customs controls between Gibraltar and Spain. With regard to the circulation of goods, there is already a hard border, and there are physical infrastructural arrangements in place to segregate either of our customs territories—precisely what the Irish and Northern Irish hope to avoid. What is anathema on the island of Ireland already exists between Gibraltar and Spain. While there is no doubt scope to improve trade across the border by improving infrastructural facilities, Gibraltar has no issue with these controls as long as they are proportionate and do not hinder legitimate trade.

With regard to people, the immigration authorities of both Spain and Gibraltar already carry out controls, because Spain is part of the Schengen Area and Gibraltar is not. Conversely, there are no immigration controls between Ireland and Northern Ireland because both the U.K. and Ireland form part of the Common Travel Area. Gibraltar is not a part of the Common Travel Area because it is not a part of the U.K. Instead, under British constitutional law, Gibraltar is a British overseas territory—and under our constitution, our executive, legislature, and judiciary are wholly distinct from those of the U.K.

The Irish backstop is therefore there to prevent the emergence of controls between Northern Ireland and Ireland or Northern Ireland and the U.K. In Gibraltar’s case, what will need to be tackled as part of the discussions on the future partnership between the U.K. and the EU are mechanisms to safeguard the fluid passage of people across the border in circumstances where controls may become stricter as a result of Gibraltar losing its EU status.

The already initialed political declaration between the EU and U.K. allows for arrangements to facilitate the crossing of borders to be explored, and the British government has made it explicitly clear that it will negotiate the future arrangements implementing the declaration on behalf of all territories for whose external relations the U.K. is responsible, including Gibraltar.

I also need to clarify that the Gibraltar protocol, agreed with the EU as part of the U.K.-EU withdrawal agreement, does not at all provide for “shared control” of Gibraltar as Nayler puts it. The protocol addresses local and practical issues of importance to citizens and businesses in Spain and Gibraltar providing for cooperation in support of the shared prosperity and security of the area. Mechanisms have been put in place to foster this cooperation, but those arrangements do not make any concessions to Spain on sovereignty, jurisdiction, or control.

Only when we start from the basis that the Gibraltarians’ right to self-determination is sacrosanct can progress be made. It is only when sovereignty is parked to one side that we can work on initiatives to improve cross-border relations, something that is undoubtedly in the mutual interest. All must act in good faith and remain open to dialogue if we genuinely wish to enter a new era in relations between London, Madrid, and Gibraltar. This should be the spirit in which the parties should approach all questions on the future relationship.

This approach was used in 2006 to address Spain’s issues with Gibraltar Airport. That year, under the terms of the Córdoba Agreement between the governments of Spain, the U.K., and Gibraltar, practical, sensible, and workable arrangements, respecting red lines on sovereignty, were agreed to. As part of the package, Gibraltar agreed to build a new airport terminal right up against the frontier, with the idea being that there would be another building on the Spanish side allowing for easy access without having to go through normal immigration controls at the land border. The arrangements had massive potential to boost economies on either side of the border.

Unfortunately, the government in Spain changed as the terminal opened at the end of 2011. The new People’s Party government reversed the policy of its Socialist predecessors and moved from cooperation with Gibraltar to outright confrontation as part of their nationalistic agenda. They insisted on joint ownership of the airport terminal and the presence of Spanish authorities in the terminal building in order to claw back jurisdiction and control over the isthmus, a strip of land that forms an integral part of the territory of Gibraltar. Sadly, Spain’s current Socialist prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, has thus far lacked the conviction to return to the positive arrangements of the past.

The latest statistics indicate that Gibraltar employs 14,703 frontier workers—people who live in Spain and rely on a fluid border in order to access work in Gibraltar. Of the 14,703 workers, 9,175 are Spanish and 2,904 are other Europeans who are neither Spanish nor British. According to a report commissioned by the Gibraltar Chamber of Commerce, Gibraltar was found to increase the level of output in the Spanish region that neighbors Gibraltar by over half a billion pounds, more than $650 billion, in a single year. Notwithstanding the above, the town that neighbors Gibraltar, La Línea de la Concepción, still ranks among the top five municipalities in Spain with the highest unemployment rates. In the region, 32 percent are unemployed.

It would be irresponsible in the extreme for Brussels and for Madrid, in pursuit of ulterior motives, to put the livelihoods of thousands of families in the region in jeopardy for failing to consider ambitious proposals for the border. The Spanish government should know that if fluidity at the border suffers as a consequence of Brexit, thousands of their own nationals would have great difficulty accessing places of work in Gibraltar, and so too would Spanish businesses in the region suffer if Gibraltarians cannot trade with them as a result of new barriers. We trust that sensible, orderly, and reasonable alternative arrangements will be put in place to mitigate against that.

Nayler is correct that Spain’s “historical argument over Gibraltar” is “archaic” and that it would be in the interests of all parties for a solution to be found. For that to happen, Spain must recognize and respect the rights and wishes of the Gibraltarians to freely determine their own destiny. A “solution” inflicted on the Gibraltarians against their will cannot work, and that is why shared sovereignty of Gibraltar is not the answer. For us, the time has come for Spain to finally relinquish its sovereignty claim and recognize the democratically expressed wishes of the Gibraltarians.

Gibraltar’s hand of friendship is there to be taken, and the Gibraltarians will extend that hand if Spain is willing to unclench its fist.

Joseph Garcia is the deputy chief minister of Gibraltar.

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