16 September 2006

A little common sense about Gibraltar

Today’s Times reports that the UK is set to sign a three-way agreement with Spain and Gibraltar that will lift the last vestiges of the blockade imposed by General Franco on the colony four decades ago. After nearly 2 years of talks the three parties are due to release a joint communiqué on Monday resolving a number of issues that have long nettled both sides.

It is expected that the agreement will ease restrictions on Gibraltarians including the resumption of the first direct flights between Spain and Gibraltar since 1979. The pact should prove a boon to the regional economy on both sides of the border. “For the finance industry the whole thing is good news,” Marcus Killick, the financial services commissioner of Gibraltar, said. Meanwhile the town of La Línea should benefit from easier access to Gibraltar’s jobs and consumers. Several thousand Spaniards also cross into Gibraltar every day to work. Peter Caruana, the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, says the agreements that have emerged from the first three-way talks represent “a huge sea-change in the nature of the relationship” with Spain. “It does signal a different and much more enlightened political engagement that you expect from European neighbours in the 21st century,”

For older Gibraltarians any sign of a rapprochement with Madrid is greeted with apprehension. Even those who support normalising relations with Spain know that it will be a tough sell for suspicious Gibraltarians. “What has been achieved is, in my view, historic,” Bruno Callaghan, a former president of the Gibraltar Chamber of Commerce, says. “But now it’s here many people will say, ‘Do we want it?” So far the Opposition in Gibraltar has held fire. The Leader of the Opposition and twice Chief Minister remains sceptical about Spain’s motives. “I don’t expect that the Spanish have had a change of heart and are giving away something for nothing,” he said. “It’s not in their history, it’s not in their character.”

Previous efforts by Britain and Spain to resolve their 300-year-old dispute over Gibraltar have foundered on opposition by its 30,000 residents, who oppose Spanish rule. In a 2002 referendum almost 99 per cent of Gibraltar’s voters rejected a proposal by London and Madrid for joint sovereignty over the territory. The idea was subsequently shelved, and both sides came to accept that Gibraltarians must be part of any negotiations over the future. “If it works it will be the watershed moment in Gibraltar’s relationship with Spain,” Dominique Searle, the editor of the Gibraltar Chronicle, said. “For me it’s the best news that I’ve had on this issue in a long time.”

Gibraltar has been a British possession since it was ceded by Spain in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht which ended the War of the Spanish Succession. Although Spain has retained its claim over the Rock, unlike the erstwhile Argentinian junta, it has not resorted to military means (or not outside the frequent wars between the two nations during the 18th Century anyway!).

Strategically the Rock was of vital importance to Britain In WWII it ensured allied access to the Mediterranean. Had Franco joined the Axis (as was a distinct possibility) then Gibraltar may well have fallen. If this had happened then the Middle East would almost certainly have fallen to Germany. The outcome of WWII would almost certainly have been very different. In recent years, however, its strategic value has reduced and the British military presence has reduced accordingly. The main force on the Rock is the Royal Gibraltar Regiment, a small territorial army force.

While There is now less of an imperative to retain Gibraltar as a possession the population is steadfastly wish to remain British. The Gibraltarians are not a group of expatriates lording it over a “native” population. Gibraltarians are a diverse mix of Maltese, British, Spanish and North African. As with the Falkland Islanders their views must be taken into account when considering the future of Gibraltar. The removal of petty restrictions will be good for Gibraltar and for Spain but it should not be construed as the first step towards a transfer of sovereignty. It would take a very long time for the residents to come around to such an idea, if they ever do.

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