Elizabeth Pond Blog

Spanish and British Fleets Face Off Again in Gibraltar

Think of Gibraltar as a whimsical footnote to last week’s abrupt abdication by Britain from “punching above its weight” for half a century in its post-empire world. Even as the mother of parliaments has barred its government from joining an American strike on Syria over the use of chemical weapons, Gibraltar has reminded nostalgic Brits of imperial glory.

The current iteration of the 300-year-old feud between London and Madrid over the British protectorate on the southern tip of Spain erupted mid-summer. Fortunately, today’s weapons of choice—apart from one potshot allegedly fired at a jet skier by the Guardia Civil and a few Gilbert-and-Sullivan gunboats deployed by Her Majesty’s government—are nothing more lethal than cement blocks and hyperbole.

The Gibraltar government, exercising the autonomy granted to it by Britain in 1969, triggered the latest row by sinking cement in disputed waters off its promontory to build an artificial reef. The rationale was that the new reef would provide a cozy home for bream, broadbill swordfish, and bluefin tuna and replenish dwindling stocks. It would only be a small add-on to the cumulative tires, barges, Mercedes-Benz sedan, and other debris dumped into the seabed in years past to improve on nature.

Spanish fishing captains, however, saw an ulterior motive—blocking them from trawling for shellfish in what were rightfully Spanish waters. Last month they mounted a seaborne protest at the entry to Gibraltar’s port. The Spanish government backed them on land by imposing long border delays and talking about introducing a €50 tax each time a car crosses from the 2.6-square-mile enclave to capacious Spain and Gibraltarians’ second homes.

British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that he was “seriously concerned” about the Spanish action.

Madrid then upped the ante by threatening stringent financial investigations of Spanish property owned by Gibraltarians. This was viewed as not cricket by the 30,000 inhabitants crammed onto the peninsula. By now most of them stem from Spanish, Maltese, and Genoese rather than English descent, but they are no less keen than other citizens in residues of John Bull’s dominions to preserve their right to immunity from both British and local taxes. In the 2002 referendum on cutting ties with London, the enclave voted 98 percent to remain a protectorate. Chief Minister Fabian Picardo speaks for his constituents when he compares Spain with North Korea and swears that Gibraltar will remain British for the next 3,000 years.

London tabloids accused the conservative Spanish government of abandoning the pragmatic Gibraltar policy of its Socialist predecessor and stirring up trouble in order to divert attention from its own scandals. Madrid tabloids scolded Prime Minister Cameron for championing Gibraltar abroad to compensate for his political weakness at home.

In the theater of confrontation Guardia Civil frogmen dived down to plant the Spanish flag on the newborn reef. The HMS Westminster frigate, sailing to exercises with allies in the Gulf, lingered briefly en route at the mighty confluence of the Atlantic and Mediterranean seas. The daily Mirror hailed the encounter with the headline, “Gibraltar: 40 Spanish fishing boats in stand-off with Royal Navy after illegally entering British waters.” In sly reference to the victory of Sir Francis Drake over the Spanish navy under the first Queen Elizabeth, it labeled the flotilla of trawlers an “armada.”

William Dartmouth, UK Independence Party Member of the European Parliament for the southwest of England and Gibraltar, insisted that a member of the royal family (third-in-line Prince George Alexander Louis perhaps?) should demonstrate British resolve by appearing in person on the Rock. The Express gleefully ran comments from readers such as “Spain runs one of the most criminal, destructive and lawless fishing fleets of the planet, raping the oceans and destroying shark (and other fish) populations and marine ecosystems everywhere.” More to the political point, Express reader “naturalspanish” skyped the message for Madrid, “No, your last colonies are Catalunya, Euskadi, Galicia, Ceuta, Melilla, and the Canary Islands. Relinquish your ownership of these… and maybe you’d have a moral authority to speak about Gibraltar.”

The choreography reminded the Financial Times Madrid correspondent  of magical realist Jorge Luis Borges’ observation that the 1982 Falklands war resembled “two bald men fighting over a comb.”

Within today’s post-bellicist European Union, of course, two members of the club will not resort to fighting each other over a comb. Prime Minister Cameron may not emulate his sister conservative Margaret Thatcher by offering Spain a compromise on Gibraltar as she did in the 1980s (along with ceding Rhodesia to the resident Africans and promising to return Hong Kong to China after Britain’s 99-year lease expired in 1997). But neither will he—especially after parliament’s revolt last week—emulate Thatcher’s dispatch of a submarine to torpedo the Argentine cruiser Belgrano in order to perpetuate British rule on far-flung oceanic territories.

Instead, both Cameron and his Spanish counterpart have appealed to European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso to send inspectors to Gibraltar to see (at London’s request) if Spain is violating EU rules on open borders or (at Madrid’s request) whether Gibraltar’s import last year of 4666 excise-free packs of cigarettes per capita raises suspicions of smuggling. When the inspectors arrive, this month or next, they will have to examine the entire context of border control, taxes, trafficking, Internet gambling, and money laundering. Given a pinch of good will, they should be able to devise face-saving solutions that won’t seem quite as anachronistic as the present arrangement.

If only it were that easy in Syria or the euro zone…

Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based journalist and the author of The Rebirth of Europe.

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