War Over Gibraltar? Spanish Threats and Britain’s Post-Brexit Weakness

Between June 1779 and February 1783 British forces in Gibraltar survived an almost unrelenting Franco-Spanish siege, fighting one of the most remarkable defensive actions in early modern history. Given this heroic feat it is perhaps unsurprising that, more than 200 years later, the British government is not willing to give up its Iberian exclave without a fight.

The Great Siege of Gibraltar

Whether it is wise to threaten the claimant Spaniards with war should they attempt to use Gibraltar as a bargaining chip in negotiations over a post-Brexit EU trade deal is somewhat debatable. What is certain, though, is that London is acutely aware of the symbolic importance of their Mediterranean outpost, even if its strategic significance at the gateway to Europe is becoming increasingly irrelevant.

Captured from the Kingdom of Castile during the War of the Spanish Succession in 1704, Gibraltar was formerly ceded to Britain by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. Attempts by the Spaniards to recapture the territory in 1727 and then during the siege of 1779-1783 failed, leaving Gibraltar as an important base for the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean.

Spain has never relinquished its claim to Gibraltar, a somewhat hypocritical stance mindful to overlook Madrid’s remaining colonial possessions on the North African coastline at Ceuta and Melilla. Periodic diplomatic spats have led to border closures and delays, often carefully orchestrated by Spanish crossing guards.

Border delays following a diplomatic row in 2013

Just as Ceuta and Melilla have a centuries-long affinity with their Spanish motherland, Gibraltar remains unapologetically British. Despite their overwhelming preference to remain within the EU, Gibraltarians have no desire to become part of Spain.

There are of course parallels here with the Falkand Islands, over which Britain went to war against Argentina in 1982. That Spain would attempt a brazen assault on Gibraltar comparable to that launched by the Argentinians against the Falklands is unthinkable, their democratic rulers far more encumbered in their actions than the brutal junta in Buenos Aires ever was.

A classic British telephone box at the Gibraltar walls

What George Augustus Eliott, commander of the Gibraltar garrison during the siege of 1779-1783, would think of the petty squabbles of today one can only guess at. Probably he would be gratified by continuing British sovereignty over the outpost his men fought so hard to maintain, no doubt more than eager to throw himself back into the fiery cauldron of battle.

Fortunately, despite the crass comments of some naive politicians, such a scenario is more than unlikely. However, the Spanish decision to publicise this potential stumbling block for Britain’s future economic relations with Europe points to the dissatisfaction on the continent surrounding the Brexit verdict.

Britain has often been seen as an outsider in Europe, an aloof power whose imperialistic history has not endeared it to many of the nations that remain tightly ensconced in the grip of Brussels.

Undoubtedly further tribulations await Theresa May and her Conservative government. Britain’s European neighbours are likely to resurrect these historical enmities in a vindictive attempt to punish one whose dismantling of the long fought for European federalist project is most unwelcome.

Elliot and his officers in discussion during the Great Siege of Gibraltar, 1782

As the British and the Spanish have long recognised, the power of a rock cannot be measured by conventional indicators. History, nationalism and symbolism combine to make the most toxic of concoctions.

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Aiding a Lesser Enemy: the element of risk in defeating evil

One of the conundrums of the prolonged Syrian conflict is whether arming and supplying the ‘rebel’ groups trying to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad’s diabolical regime is a risk worth taking. Is it a necessary step to finally end one of the Middle East’s most repressive dictatorships? Or is it a misguided gamble that will see Al-Qaeda affiliates armed to the teeth, ready to deploy their weaponry against Western targets?

The Syrian rebels come from a disparate set of backgrounds, including Al-Qaeda
The Syrian rebels come from a disparate set of backgrounds, including Al-Qaeda

A comparable, if not totally identical, dilemma was faced by the Allied forces seventy-three years ago today. At the height of the Blitz, with France long since having fallen to the Wehrmacht’s ‘Blitzkrieg’, the British government feared an imminent invasion, both of its mainland and its overseas territories.

The Chief of the Naval Staff, writing on the 21st November 1940, declared the importance of supplying wheat to the starving Spanish regime of the fascist Francisco Franco in order to prevent Spain ‘being forced into the arms of Germany’.

British naval personnel were particularly concerned that Spain could support a German attack against their crucial naval base in Gibraltar, thus gaining control of all the Mediterranean. The dilemma faced by the British was obvious. Did they supply the Spaniards with an important commodity, knowing that Franco could easily accept the gift and still offer support to his ideological brethren in Berlin?

The British aided the detestable Franco in a bid to defeat the greater evil of Hitler
The British aided the detestable Franco in a bid to defeat the greater evil of Hitler

What made the issue more complex is that the wheat ship was due to be sent from America. The Americans, however, wanted a declaration of support for the Allied effort from Franco in return for the wheat. The British were unequivocal in their stance:

General Franco would not make such a statement and that if he did he would bring the Germans immediately in on his back…I feel that the American side of the problem has been very badly handled by the United States ambassador here.

America had yet to enter the war and the British clearly felt they had far more to lose if the procrastination regarding the Spanish wheat ship continued. For the British, the risk was worth taking:

Even if our friends and we fail to keep Spain out of the Axis we can at once reverse our policy and hold up supplies.

Ultimately, the American grain ships sailed and Spain’s wheat supplies were assured. Franco, knowing his war-ravaged country could ill afford to lose this precious resource, refused Hitler’s entreaties to aid a German and Vichy French attack against Gibraltar. Gibraltar, meanwhile, remained a vital British naval base throughout WWII and supported the convoys that supplied Britain’s allies.

Gibraltar's naval importance made it indispensable to the Allied war effort
Gibraltar’s naval importance made it indispensable to the Allied war effort

Of course reversing the policy of arms supplies to the Syrian rebels is not practicable and therefore it is a bigger gamble than the Spanish wheat ‘dilemma’ turned out to be. Perhaps, in the long run, it is a gamble worth taking. It depends on who is defined as the greater evil; Assad? Or the terrorist minority amongst the rebels?

PRO Source: CAB 80/23