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A stop sign on the border crossing from Spain to Gibraltar (Foto: DW/Walz)
Image: DW / Walz

Tension in Gibraltar

Guy Hedgecoe, Spain / ecw
August 9, 2013

Tensions have been bubbling over between Spain and Britain recently over Gibraltar. But is there more to these tensions than meets the eye? Guy Hedgecoe sent this postcard from Madrid.


For Spaniards, Gibraltar is a strange place. Surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea and a stone's throw from the plains of Andalusia, it is, nonetheless, an island of Britishness.

Red telephone boxes of the kind once seen all over Britain can be found on Gibraltar's streets. There are pubs with names like "The Piccadilly" and "The Trafalgar," and if you're hungry, you'll easily find fish and chips - which you can pay for in pounds sterling.

Spain has never liked having this tiny British territory as a neighbor, because it believes Gibraltar should be Spanish. But for the most part, this didn't matter. Gibraltarians and Spaniards simply got on with their lives.

Dispute over fishing rights

But in recent weeks that hasn't been so easy. A dispute over fishing in the waters off the territory saw Gibraltar tip large concrete blocks into the sea, preventing Spanish fishermen from working there. And appartently in response, Spain started to introduce laborious border checks. As a result, people have had to queue often up to six hours in the scorching summer sun.

The Spanish fishing boat 'Divina Providencia' (L), escorted by a Guardia Civil boat (C), is watched by a British police patrol from Gibraltar (R) in waters near the Rock of Gibraltar, early morning 16 August 2012. (Photo: EPA/A.CARRASCO RAGEL dpa - Bildfunk)
Tensions have errupted lately over fishing rights in the straitsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The political temperature has also risen. Spain's foreign minister Jose Manuel Garcia Margallo has warned that the country is considering introducing a series of stiff new measures for Gibraltar. These include closing Spanish airspace to flights heading for Gibraltar, and introducing a 50-euro charge for vehicles driving into the territory.

Gibraltar's chief minister Fabian Picardo described Spain's attitude as “saber-rattling” and said the measures sounded more like the policies of North Korea than of an EU partner. British Prime Minister David Cameron, meanwhile, said he was “seriously concerned” about the situation.

In recent years Madrid and London have frequently made clear their disagreements over Gibraltar. But the current tensions are more serious.

300th anniversary

For some it's a worrying throwback to when the right wing dictatorship of Francisco Franco closed the border in 1969 in protest of Britain's insistence on claiming the territory. The shutdown ended 13 years later.

This year marks the 300th anniversary of the Treaty of Utrecht, under which Spain handed Gibraltar over to Britain. For London, that is historical justification for holding onto this strategically useful spot. But for Madrid, Gibraltar is a colonial remnant. Spain has even lobbied the United Nations to get involved in what it calls the “de-colonization” of the territory.

Der Felsen von Gibraltar an der Südspitze der Iberischen Halbinsel (Foto vom 10.05.2011). Die 6,5 Quadratkilometer große und bis 426 Meter Höhe aufragende Halbinsel ist seit Beginn des 18. Jahrhunderts britische Kronkolonie. Foto: Roland Holschneider dpa pixel
Gibraltar has been a British territory on the edge of Spain for 300 yearsImage: picture alliance/Roland Holschneider

But many people suspect that Gibraltar is not even the real issue at stake here. They say the Spanish government is using the controversy as a distraction from a more pressing problem. The governing party of Mariano Rajoy has been facing allegations of widespread corruption and on the first of August the prime minister appeared before congress to face questions about the affair. Gibraltar, the theory goes, is just a smokescreen.

If the current tensions disappear soon, it will confirm for many the idea that Gibraltar is a useful political tool for Spain's politicians to use when it suits them. Such a notion would horrify those waiting for hours in their cars at the border, or the fishermen unable to fish because of concrete blocks in the water. But even if this summer spat has genuine motives behind it, it looks highly unlikely that Spain and Britain will see eye-to-eye on this problem any time soon.

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