Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Rock, Water, Air and Fire: Foregrounding the Elements in the Gibraltar-Spain Dispute

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Rock, Water, Air and Fire: Foregrounding the Elements in the Gibraltar-Spain Dispute

Article excerpt


Through the case study of the contested British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar, this paper contributes to discussions on 'territorial volumes' by exploring the role of the 'elemental' in the protracted sovereignty dispute between Spain and Gibraltar. Drawing on scholarship by Elden, Adey, McCormack and others in political and cultural geography, the paper highlights the value of foregrounding the elements of rock, water, air and fire (in the form of the sun) in attempts to understand the tensions between Gibraltar and Spain whilst also demonstrating the significant intersections between the elemental and the human body. Whilst avoiding the snares of environmental determinism, the paper makes the case for an elemental ontology that functions through and with the proclivities and molecular specificities of the elements in order to better understand the construct of the territorial volume, the relationship between elemental and bodily volumes, and the site specific geopolitical realities, fractures and possibilities that are laid bare as the elements are unearthed.


Elements, volume, geopolitics, sovereignty


Measuring just 2.3 square miles, the British Overseas Territory (OT) of Gibraltar has been at the centre of a protracted sovereignty dispute since 1704 when Britain seized the territory from Spain. Despite being connected to Spain by a small isthmus, Gibraltar's British Sovereignty was cemented at the time under the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht--Article X of which stated:

   The Catholic King does hereby for himself, his heirs and successors
   yield to the Crown of Great Britain the full and entire propriety
   of the town and castle of Gibraltar together with the port,
   fortifications, and forts thereunto belonging ... to be held and
   enjoyed absolutely with all manner of right forever without any
   exception or impediment whatsoever. (1)

Despite containing a number of clauses that are wholly outdated and numerous conditions that have been broken, (2) Britain hold to the Treaty as a legal basis for sovereignty, and more recently to the right of Gibraltarians to determine their own future as the basis for the maintenance of the OT. Meanwhile, Spain refute British sovereignty on the basis of an outdated Treaty and on the premise that Gibraltar is fundamental to their own territorial integrity (see UN resolution 1514 XV). As documented by scholars such as Gold (2004, 2009, 2010, Dodds et al., 2007) the tensions between Spain, Britain and Gibraltar have waxed and waned in recent years. Generally speaking, the Spanish Socialist Party (last in office from 2004 to 2011) are more open to compromise with the Gibraltarian government whilst the more rightwing Partido Popular (PP), who currently hold office, traditionally take a much harder line against the presence of British Gibraltarians at the edge of their territory. Indeed, in 2013, the PP's Foreign Minister, Jose Garcia-Margello, asserted that 'the party is over' with regard to Gibraltar and suggested a number of policies that could be implemented by Spain to inconvenience the OT such as imposing fines on border crossers and closing airspace to flights headed to and from the territory (Hickey, 2013). This signalled a significant step change from the previous Spanish Government who had brought forward a number of measures working with Gibraltar and it is in this geopolitical juncture that this paper is situated.

During the summer of 2014 interviews (3) with ministers in the Gibraltarian Government, civil servants and politicians, senior police officers in the Royal Gibraltarian Police, and people with experiences of crossing the border between Gibraltar and Spain were conducted to build a picture of the dispute from a British Gibraltarian perspective. (4) Media reports from British, Gibraltarian and Spanish sources were also analysed and a number of significant spaces within the British OT inhabited. …

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