The UK has lodged a formal complaint to Spain, accusing border authorities of disrupting entry into the British protectorate of Gibraltar. Stories of young children and pensioners being forced to wait up to six hours in boiling cars before being permitted across the border after increased vehicle searches has reinvigorated a long-standing dispute over territorial sovereignty.
It is convenient that Spanish authorities should decide to employ this harassment now, based on the feeble pretense that a new offshore artificial reef could encourage smuggling. In the wake of a disastrous train crash in the northwest of the country, and amidst dire economic turmoil and frequent evidence of government corruption, it is unsurprising that the Spaniards should reignite the Gibraltar debate in a bid to hide their woes.
Given the unpopularity of Mariano Rajoy’s government, and its conservative political stance, it is more surprising that pandering to nationalist sentiment over Gibraltar has not been employed more recently.
Captured from the Kingdom of Castile during the War of the Spanish Succession in 1704, Gibraltar was formerly ceded to Britain in the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713. Attempts by the Spaniards to recapture the territory in 1727 and between 1779 and 1783 failed, leaving Gibraltar as an important base for the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean.
Spain has been persistent in its claims that Gibraltar belongs to the mainland and, at its worst, closed the border to vehicles between 1969 and 1985. Yet these claims are infused with hypocrisy for one simple reason. Namely, that Spain has similar possessions along the North African coast.
The exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla are to Morocco what Gibraltar is to Spain. Geographically part of the African continent, the territories have been under European control for centuries.
Ceuta was, indeed, the location of one of the most chivalric battles in history, when forces of King John I of Portugal captured the city in 1415, following which his three sons (including Henry the Navigator) were knighted for their heroic deeds.The Union of the Crowns (of Spain and Portugal) in 1580 saw Ceuta pass to Spanish control and it has remained that way since.
Melilla, on the other hand, was captured by Castilian forces in 1497 as the Reconquista spilled over Spain’s borders. Despite frequent skirmishes and sieges involving a plethora of Moroccan tribesman and dynasts in the succeeding centuries, Melilla has remained part of Spain.
And, like Ceuta, it is a part of Spain, having been populated by Spaniards who have necessarily imbued the territory with their traditional culture. The same can be said for Gibraltar which, as its population will tell you, is just as much a part of Britain as London.
These territories may be outdated remnants of bygone imperialism, of which both Spain and Britain remain rightfully proud, yet their cultural and social make-up has come to defy their geography.
The needless bullying tactics employed by Spain’s crossing guards will serve no purpose in changing what has become territorial reality and will certainly provide no respite to the more serious challenges facing the Iberian country today.