Spain has the right on its side regarding Gibraltar, but it must weigh the consequences of its actions
Against the historic backdrop of the longstanding dispute over Gibraltar, every now and then ill-tempered episodes crop up, straining relations between the parties concerned. Since the election in 2011 of Fabian Picardo as the new chief minister in the colony, these incidents have centered mainly on the jurisdiction over waters in the Bay of Algeciras. In March 2012, the Gibraltarian administration decided to break the fishing agreement, which had stood since 1999, and since then the harassment of Spanish fishermen and Civil Guard patrol boats have been constant. Now the Rock has sunk 70 blocks of concrete in the bay with no regard for the consequences in terms of both the environment and fishing rights.
What is also different is the attitude of the Spanish government, which has opted to respond to the provocation. As far back as October 9, the Spanish representatives at the United Nations informed Gibraltar’s authorities that their approach to the dispute would harden if the Rock failed to change its position. This is the context of the current conflict. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has confirmed his intention to keep up the pressure (including stricter border controls) until London agrees to a genuine negotiation.
The Popular Party government wishes to bring the immediate causes of conflict to a round table where the British and Spanish authorities would be joined by Gibraltar and the Andalusian regional government, which is responsible for the issues of fishing and the local environment. According to Spain’s government, the holding of such talks is something that London agreed to last year, but which have failed to materialize in the intervening period.
As for the underlying issue of sovereignty, there is discussion on the possibility of taking advantage of the fact that Argentina currently holds the rotating presidency of the UN Security Council in order to launch a joint diplomatic offensive concerning Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands.
This looks like a long shot, and is something which should not even be attempted without a strong internal consensus.
Both issues share the context of stemming from residual colonial situations, and that the desire of the inhabitants runs counter to the geographical factor in terms of where the territory is situated. It would be unfair to merely apply the first criteria over the second, meaning that it would simply be sufficient for a state to stuff a territory with colonists to achieve a satisfactory status quo. Britain has gone so far in the past as to accept the idea of shared sovereignty, as long as the eventual formula was accepted by the Gibraltarian population, a caveat which effectively annuls any possibility of this taking place.
As on other occasions when the idea of bringing in international forums to consider the issue was suggested, there are fears that the status of Ceuta and Melilla (Spanish exclaves claimed by Morocco) will also be reappraised. But the situation is a very different one. For a start, these cities have always been Spanish and never colonies. But to be realistic, we must take on board that if London were to one day accept an agreement to return Gibraltar, as it did with Hong Kong, applying international criteria, there is no doubt that Morocco would receive the international support for its claims which it lacks today.