Spain imposes restrictions...Britain sends warships – and all a mere 2.6 square miles of rock, a legacy of imperialism...
Gibraltar’s recorded history begins around 950 BC with occupation first by Phoenicians, then Carthaginians, later Romans. Following the Roman Empire’s collapse, it was part of Visigoth Hispania. By 681 AD the armies of the Umayyad Caliphate had spread out of Arabia to conquer North Africa, and when the Moors invaded Hispania in 711, Gibraltar came under Moorish rule.
A gas tanker passing Gibraltar on its way into the Mediterranean.
Photo: Oleksandr Kalinichenko/shutterstock.com
Near the entrance of the Mediterranean Sea, the small peninsula was fortified in 1160. In medieval times it became a heavily fortified and garrisoned town that sustained numerous sieges and battles. Its position on a bay made it a natural anchorage for ships and its geography gave it defensive advantages
The Christian Kingdom of Castile annexed Gibraltar in 1309, lost it again to the Moors in 1333 and finally regained it in 1462. The Moors were expelled, and Gibraltar became part of Spain, remaining under Spanish rule until 1704.
Soon Gibraltar fell into severe decline. The end of Muslim rule in Spain and the Christian capture of the southern ports had sapped the peninsula’s strategic value. In the 16th century it suffered repeated raids by Barbary pirates from North Africa. Eventually, the Spanish allowed the English fleet to use Gibraltar's port as a base for operations against the pirates, who were raiding the British and Irish coasts.
Then Britain went one step further. At the start of the 18th century Gibraltar was captured by an Anglo-Dutch fleet during the War of the Spanish Succession. At the war’s end, Spain ceded the territory to Britain under the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713. The Spanish garrison and Spanish inhabitants left. Many resettled nearby in Algeciras or founded the new town of San Roque. The treaty stipulated that if Britain were ever to dispose of Gibraltar it would first have to offer the territory to Spain.
Spain tried over the century to regain control through military, diplomatic and economic pressure. Gibraltar was besieged and heavily bombarded during three wars between Britain and Spain but the attacks were repulsed each time. By the end of the last one, in the late 18th century, Gibraltar had faced 14 sieges in 500 years.
Despite Gibraltar’s later importance, the British Government initially saw it more as a bargaining counter than a strategic asset, neglecting its defences and garrisoning as an unwelcome expense. Seven separate times between 1713 and 1728 the British Government proposed exchanging Gibraltar for concessions from Spain, but each time the proposals were vetoed by the British Parliament following protests.
In 1727, Spain nullified the Utrecht Treaty's provisions relating to Gibraltar on the grounds that Britain had violated its terms. Four years later Spain built a line of fortifications across the upper end of the peninsula, cutting off Gibraltar from its hinterland and leaving it dependent on trade with Morocco for food and supplies. In 1779–83 the combined Spanish and French fleets blockaded Gibraltar from the sea, but in vain.
By the latter half of the 19th century, only Gibraltar-born inhabitants were entitled to residency; everyone else needed permits apart from employees of the British Crown. And by the end of the century, its future as a British colony was again in serious doubt. Its economic value was diminishing, as a new generation of steamships with a much longer range no longer needed to stop there to refuel en route to more distant ports.
A Spanish proposal to swap Gibraltar for Ceuta on the other side of the Strait was considered but eventually rejected. Britain ultimately decided that Gibraltar’s strategic position as a naval base outweighed its potential vulnerability to land attack.
British control of Gibraltar enabled the Allies to control the entrance to the Mediterranean during the Second World War, which brought tunnelling, refortification and a hugely expanded garrison. After the war Spain revived its claim to the territory, fuelled by the de-colonisation agenda of the United Nations. In 1946 Britain listed Gibraltar as an “Overseas Dependent Territory” but due to the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht, it could only be British or Spanish and could not gain independence.
From 1954, Spain imposed increasingly stringent restrictions on trade and the movement of vehicles and people across the border with Gibraltar, tightening the noose in 1964 and 1966. Two years after the Gibraltarians opted in a 1967 referendum to remain with Britain, Spain shut the frontier completely and cut Gibraltar’s telecommunications links through Spain.
Although the Lisbon Agreement of 1980 committed Britain and Spain to starting negotiations on Gibraltar's future and lifting the communications restrictions, the agreement was strongly opposed by many Gibraltarians. Still, the border was finally fully reopened in February 1985. Meanwhile, the British government reduced its military presence by closing the naval dockyard, downgrading the RAF presence and withdrawing the British garrison in 1990 (though a number of military units continued to be stationed in Gibraltar).
Since 1985, as a result of defence cuts, Gibraltar’s economy – once dependent on the military – is now based on tourism, financial services, shipping and internet gambling. It is largely self-governed, with its own parliament and government, though Britain runs its defence and foreign policy.
By 2002, Britain and Spain proposed an agreement to share sovereignty. The government of Gibraltar, fiercely opposed, put it to a referendum, with predictable results. In September 2006, the tripartite Cordoba Agreement between Spain, Gibraltar and Britain made it easier to cross the border and improved communications and transport links by lifting restrictions on Gibraltar’s airport to enable airlines operating from Spain to land, allowing Spanish residents to use the airport.
Now Spain is considering border taxes and closing its airspace to planes using Gibraltar airport. The British government blusters with warships and prime ministerial video messages of support to the Gibraltarians.
The British people have to consider their own interests. We need a foreign policy based on trade and friendship, not fixated on maintaining the ridiculous remnants of empire that are out of synch with the realities of a modern world.
Friendship and trading normality with Spain should take precedence over propping up the anachronistic desires of 30,000 Gibraltarians to be “British”. You can only be British in Britain.
We cannot continue to send gunboats around the world. Britain and Spain should mediate and find a settlement that will gradually incorporate Gibraltar within the adjacent Spanish mainland while protecting the Gibraltarians, as happened with Hong Kong and China. ■