“Thirty-five years ago this week, another woman prime minister sent a task force halfway across the world to defend the freedom of another small group of British people against another Spanish-speaking country and I’m absolutely certain that our current prime minister will show the same resolve in standing by the people of Gibraltar”. These were the words of former Conservative leader Michael Howard, during an interview with Britain’s Sky News, last Sunday. Mr. Howard was referring to when the then British PM Margaret Thatcher sent troops to war with Argentina in 1982 over the ownership of the Falkland Islands. The war ended after 10 weeks with the British being victorious but not without leaving 900 people from both sides dead. Mr. Howard was advancing the idea that Prime Minister Theresa May would not hesitate in doing the same to defend Gibraltar, an overseas British territory, from Spain’s alleged interference. It was a dramatic reaction after reports this week that the European Council proposed in draft guidelines for the Brexit negotiations, which have already began after May triggered Article 50, could include a trade deal with Gibraltar with Spain having a veto power. Spain has always claimed Gibraltar as part of its territory.
The Rock of Gibraltar
Gibraltar is a 2.5-square-mile peninsula at the tip of Spain and has been a British Overseas Territory for 300 years. In 1969 the territory was granted autonomy and in 1981, The British Nationality Act 1981 granted Gibraltarians full British citizenship. Gibraltar has a constitution and has an almost complete internal democratic self-government through an elected parliament-unicameral. The head of state is Queen Elizabeth II, who is represented by the Governor of Gibraltar. The governor enacts day-to-day matters on the advice of the Gibraltar Parliament, but is responsible to the British government in respect of defence, foreign policy, internal security and general good governance. The Chief Minister of Gibraltar is the head of Her Majesty’s Government of Gibraltar who is elected by the Gibraltar Parliament, and formally appointed by the Governor of Gibraltar, who does so, on behalf the Queen. The incumbent Chief Minister is Fabian Picardo who was elected in 2011.
British and Dutch forces captured Gibraltar from Spain in 1704 during the War of the Spanish Succession. Spain ceded Gibraltar to Britain in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht at the end of the war. There have been multiple attempts by Spain to reclaim it without much success. One of the reasons is that majority of Gibraltarians want to remain British as opposed to being part of Spain. This idea has been expressed twice in the history of Gibraltar. The first was in 1967 when a referendum was held and the options presented to Gibraltarians were:
- To pass under Spanish sovereignty in accordance with the terms proposed by the Spanish Government; or
- Retain their link with Britain, with democratic local institutions and Britain retaining its present responsibilities.
The Gibraltarians rejected Spanish sovereignty overwhelmingly with a 99.64% of the vote. This resulted in Spain closing the border until it was reopened in 1985 before Spain joined the EU. The second time was in a 2002 referendum where the question this time was whether the UK and Spain should share sovereignty and again the Gibraltarians voted overwhelmingly to remain solely under the British
Gibraltarians want to be part of the UK and the EU
You cannot have the cake and eat it. This is the kind of situation that Gibraltar has found itself in. They want to stay in the EU and also want to be in the UK. This is impossible. Gibraltar is a member of the European Union having joined through the European Communities Act 1972 (UK), which gave effect to the Treaty of Accession 1972, as a dependent territory of the United Kingdom under what was then article 227(4) of the Treaty Establishing the European Community covering special member state territories. The UK voted to leave the EU. Majority of Gibraltarians however, were in favour of the UK staying in the EU and 96% of its population voting to remain. The fear was and continues to be that if the UK leaves the EU, Spain will assert their claim of the rock in addition to losing the economic benefits the EU has offered. This supported by Spain’s acting foreign minister at the time of the referendum, José Manuel García-Margallo, who warned that his country would demand control of Gibraltar the “very next day” after a British vote to exit the EU. The current draft EU guidelines on Brexit can only make matters worse.
It will be unlikely that this rock of Gibraltar will trigger an Anglo-Spanish war but what will be more likely is the sustainability of peace and good relations between the two will be premised on co-sovereignty. I agree with Peter Hain-former Labour cabinet minister- who wrote in the Guardian that, “The only concession Gibraltarians would have to make is a Spanish flag flying on the Rock alongside a British one. Their cherished British citizenship, traditions, customs and way of life would be unchanged – except for the better, because being under siege from Spain would disappear.”
BY FELIX OMBURA
This article appears in our digital law newsletter, The Deuteronomy Vol 4, Issue 1 of April 6th 2017
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