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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Spain Seeks to Hide Problems with Gibraltar Disruption: threatens rift with UK

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.

British naval power enabled the capture of Gibraltar
British naval power enabled the capture of Gibraltar

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.

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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.

Henry the Navigator came of age at Ceuta
Henry the Navigator came of age at Ceuta

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.

Gibraltar is an unapologetically British outpost
Gibraltar is an unapologetically British outpost

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.