A Rocky Road: The Political Fate of Gibraltar

By Ho, Norman | Harvard International Review, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

A Rocky Road: The Political Fate of Gibraltar


Ho, Norman, Harvard International Review


Gibraltar, commonly nicknamed "The Rock," is an unusual political anachronism, a bastion of British colonial imperialism and 18th century European power politics caught in a 21st century geopolitical context. Gibraltar is one of the world's most contested territories, the cause of annual tension between Britain and Spain, and one possible thorn in the future of political integration in the European Union. It continues to be of vital strategic importance, both in military and economic terms, as it guards the sole entrance to the Mediterranean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean and contains important NATO bases. Multilateral considerations must be at the heart of any tangible solution, respecting both individual territorial and democratic interests, while keeping in mind existing frameworks of international law. There must be mutual effort from all involved parties while acknowledging new developments in European integration.

Gibraltar became a Spanish territory after Ferdinand and Isabella's military triumph over the Moors in 1492, but in 1704, Britain captured Gibraltar in the War of Spanish Succession and officially took control of the region after the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, which still serves as the legal basis for Gibraltar's formal political attachment to Britain.

Spain made several attempts to retake Gibraltar militarily in the late 18th century, but was unsuccessful. Gibraltar became an official British crown colony in 1830, and the issue of its status was not broached again until 1963 at a meeting of the UN Special Committee on Decolonization. Despite Spanish efforts to reclaim sovereignty of the peninsula, Britain did not budge, and in 1969, Spanish dictator Francisco Franco instituted the border closure that lasted until 1985.

Since then, Gibraltarians have enjoyed a high level of self-government, especially under their own constitution, which was ratified in 1969. Despite UN General Assembly demands that Britain return sovereignty to Spain by 1996, no tangible agreement has been reached between the two states. Furthermore, Gibraltarians refuse to comply with any Spanish authority.

Perhaps what makes Gibraltar unique is that it is part of an unexpected three-way diplomatic battle. Spain considers Gibraltar a purely territorial sovereignty dispute between the current British administering power and itself as the territorial claimant. Likewise, Britain agrees with productive state-to-state discussions and favors joint-sovereignty that respects the rights of Gibraltarians to express themselves through referenda regarding possible changes of law. Gibraltar, on the other hand, maintains that the situation is one of decolonization and self-determination, expressing anger over a possible British sell-out of their freedoms.

The most dramatic display of Gibraltarian solidarity against Spanish rule occurred in a November 2002 referendum where 99 percent of Gibraltarians rejected joint-sovereignty. …

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