Countries, Decolonization, Security & Defense

Interview with Sir Graham: Gibraltar, Brexit and Territorial Dispute

Last week, I had the honour of meeting Sir Graham Watson, former MEP, and ask him questions about Gibraltar a few days after the Brexit had been announced. I also had the opportunity to ask him about the dispute with Spain, a territorial disagreement which is far from being resolved. You will find some of what the former leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) Group in the European Parliament shared with me during the interview below, in italic. I have tried to complement his arguments with others found in the press and provide additional background information when deemed necessary.

Sir Graham, former MEP for South England between 1994 and 2014, was appointed in October 2014 by HM Government of Gibraltar to lead “the lobbying activities of the Government in the EU capital which includes advising and guiding the Government in connection with the implementation of strategies for the promotion of Gibraltar’s interests within the European Union.” The Representation Office of Gibraltar to the European Union was opened on 27 May 2015, thus confirming Gibraltar’s eagerness to further participate in the EU decision making.

Gibraltar joined the EU (the EEC at the time) alongside the United Kingdom, of which it is an overseas territory, in 1973.

In Gibraltar, EU treaties apply, as outlined in Article 355(3) of the Consolidated Version of the Treaty On the Functioning of the European Union, but VAT, customs rules and excise rules do not.

Although Gibraltarians are obliged to follow EU directives, they had no say in it until 2004, after which Gibraltar was added to the South West England constituency for European Parliament elections. Gibraltar was considered by the UK to be too small to have its own MEP.

Amidst the results of the EU referendum, Gibraltar has made it back to the headlines. The Rock’s future would be uncertain if it had to leave the EU along with the UK, but Spain insistence on getting the territory back to Spain is increasing tension in the region.

Can the dispute between the UK and Spain about Gibraltar be considered as a frozen conflict?

“It cannot really be considered as being frozen because it is alive. There are daily incursions of Spanish vessels and of the police into Gibraltar territorial waters. Spain justifies this by invoking the preservation and environmental zone whose responsibility was given to them by the European Commission. Of course, no shots are being fired, but there are frictions every day. The issue could then be assessed as frozen conflict, with melting edges.”

Sir Graham was referring to the Estrecho Oriental a 69-square-mile marine conservation area site which englobes “all but one small segment of the British zone –  two square miles in the north-western corner.”

Why is it that Spain has relentlessly tried to regain control of Gibraltar since they lost it and the Treaty of Utrecht was signed in 1713?

The Peace of Utrecht, or the Treaties or Utrecht, were signed in 1713 between France and other European powers, and between Spain and other nations. They marked the end of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714).  Spain, among others, lost Gibraltar and Minorca to Britain.

Sir Graham explained that “Spain does not contest the loss of any other lost territories, but a clause in the treaty with Britain has made Spain hope that someday, the Rock will be returned to them.”

Indeed, the Treaty states “And in case it shall hereafter seem meet to the Crown of Great Britain to grant, sell or by any means to alienate therefrom the propriety of the said town of Gibraltar, it is hereby agreed and concluded that the preference of having the sale shall always be given to the Crown of Spain before any others.”

Sir Graham suggested that “this part of the text is the basis of the ongoing dispute, as it seems to be interpreted by Spain as a clause that would essentially mean that the UK could give Gibraltar back to them any time. “

When reading the text, it is difficult to understand it this way, especially when the Treaty starts by stating that “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; and he gives up the said propriety to be held and enjoyed absolutely with all manner of right for ever, without any exception or impediment whatsoever.”

Spain’s claims are somewhat reflected in Gibraltar’s constitution (that of 1967 and then used in 2006 again) as it states “Whereas Gibraltar is part of Her Majesty’s dominions and Her Majesty’s Government have given assurances to the people of Gibraltar that Gibraltar will remain part of Her Majesty’s dominions unless and until an Act of Parliament otherwise provides, and furthermore that Her Majesty’s Government will never enter into arrangements under which the people of Gibraltar would pass under the sovereignty of another state against their freely and democratically expressed wishes”. This, of course, solemnly declares that the Rock is a British possession, but also that the door is still open for a change of sovereignty. The only difference between Spain and the UK in that regard is that the former does not seem to have any regards to self-determination of the people of Gibraltar, which makes all the difference.

Why should Gibraltar remain British? 

“Gibraltar is a British territory, by law but also by tradition. It has been under British control since 1704, which has been consecrated by the Treaty of Utrecht. So legally speaking, it is British.

Most importantly, the people of Gibraltar want to remain attached to the United Kingdom. They have declared so loud and clear in two referenda over the past 20 years, the latest having taken place in 2002, and as emphasized in the 2006 Constitution.”

In 1967, 99,64% of Gibraltarians rejected Spanish sovereignty. In 2002, when asked “”Do you approve of the principle that Spain and the United Kingdom should share sovereignty over Gibraltar?” 98.97% of Gibraltarians votes no, thus sending a strong message to Spain despite the absence of legal weight of the voting. In 2006, 60,24% approved the new Constitution.

Last week, Fabian Picardo, Chief Minister of Gibraltar spoke to Scotland’s First Minister, NIcola Sturgeon to discuss the possibility for both Gibraltar and Scotland to remain in the EU despite the Brexit. Scotland voted to remain at 62% while 95,9% of Gibraltarians wanted to stay in. What exactly is being discussed?

“Chief Minister Picardo has been in touch with Scotland as both territories agree that they are better off in the EU. Among solutions being discussed is the possibility for them to stay within the EU, while England would leave.

“There is no clear plan on how that could be done, but considering the multiple territorial arrangements that exist within the EU, I am sure a solution could be found. Look at Greenland for example. The Danish overseas territory joined the EU in 1973 alongside the mainland, but decided to withdraw and left the EU in 1985.”

Essentially, Sir Graham suggested that “parts of the UK could remain in the EU while others leave, which would only cause a partial Brexit as well as not threaten the unity of the EU.” This idea has been also used in the press and referred to as “reverse Greenland”. Obviously, many issues arise from this idea: what about the freedom of movement?

Sir Graham recalled “the unique histories of Scotland and Gibraltar and their respective cultures which entitle them to decide on their future, aside from that of the UK as a whole. Despite the results of the referendum, he felt that it had proven that Gibraltar still stood united, and that its people do not wish to give up on their European future.

“In spite of the referendum, I believe there is a good chance that Article 50 will never actually be triggered and that the UK will never withdraw from the EU.”

Judging from the lack of plan Brexiters have and of leadership they have shown after their victory, it surely seems that Sir Graham may be close to what will happen.

What are the consequences of Brexit for Gibraltar, its economy and especially the financial sector?

“It is uncertainty that causes the most harm for business. The risk is that Spain will seek to force Gibraltar into accepting Spanish sovereignty, perhaps through closing the border, which would affect the Rock as well as have consequences for Andalusia with which Gibraltar is very close economically (Gibraltar is the 2nd biggest employer of the Spanish region), but Gibraltar will find a way. Trade with Morocco as well as Malta could be increased. The territory has always proven resourceful, being used to Spain’s pressure.”

Franco had the border closed between Spain and the Rock between 1969 and 1985. The shortage of Spanish labour was then replaced by workers coming from Morocco. According to Sir Graham, “there is no reason the same couldn’t happen again considering the thriving and modern economy the territory enjoys. But it surely would make things more difficult for Gibraltar.“

British Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond recently declared to the press that “We will be less able to protect Gibraltar’s interests – not defend Gibraltar’s territory, of course we can do that, but to protect Gibraltar’s interests – if we are not inside the European Union.” What does that mean in practice?

“The Foreign Secretary just stated facts. Gibraltar will be more vulnerable out of the EU as the UK would not have the same bargaining chips as if the country were still in the Union. Especially when it comes to protecting the border with Spain, a UK out of the EU means that it does not benefit from any monitoring  of free movement by the European Commission. The European Commission actually ensures that the border between Gibraltar and Spain remains open. When in 2012-13 Spain unjustifiably restricted the flow at the border with Gibraltar, the EU reacted and ensured that Spain’s actions were stopped and crossing the border was made easy again”.

British residents had indeed filed complaints to the European Commission following the long queues that were forming at the border with Spain in 2012 and 2013. The Commission then proceeded to send recommendations to both parties demanding them to ensure “daily cooperation between the authorities working on each side of the border. The Commission thus encourages all relevant authorities to strengthen their constructive dialogue with their counterparts for this purpose.”

For Sir Graham, “it is still very unlikely that, if Gibraltar were to leave the EU, Spain would close the border with the Rock. Indeed, Spain would have too much to lose.”

Why is Gibraltar still on the United Nations’ list of Non-Self-Governing Territories? The people of Gibraltar have supported their political ties with the UK, but why is that not reflected at the UN?

“That you would need to ask the UN. Gibraltar has applied to the UN for decolonisation every year since 1963 but its application has always been blocked by Spain or its allies. But I can assure you that the people of Gibraltar do not feel colonised as they enjoy a very high degree of independence. As to the non-self-governing qualification, this is a result of the fact that in 1713, there was no talk of “self-determination”, and for Spain, it is not a key principle in the dispute.

“What Gibraltar has always been fighting for, however, is that representatives of the Rock be included in the discussions between London and Madrid when it comes to discussing its future. Depending on which party is in power, Spain has been blocking tripartite negotiations. Gibraltar should always be included in the talks if it is the focus of them”.

The Chief Minister was again “critical of the Special Committee for allowing interested member states such as Spain and Argentina further opportunity to wield their obviously greater power and influence within the UN, and to frustrate the very objectives of the Special Committee and the principles which bind it.” What did he mean by that?

“At the UN, each country has one vote. But of course it is more complicated than that. The UK has a lot of influence at the UN being a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council. But Spain (and to a certain extent Argentina) is also a prominent actor which often enjoys the backing of Latin American nations.

“But what Spain really hinges their claim on is the anomaly that Gibraltar is – it is the last colony in Europe and this is what they base their rhetoric on. Of course, it is quite hypocritical of then considering that they possess Ceuta and Melilla just across the Mediterranean, but appealing to the need to resolve the issue of the ‘last colony in Europe’ catches the UN’s attention.” 

So why is the dispute still not resolved?

“The issue is not high enough on either of the UK’s or Spain’s agendas. The dispute over Gibraltar is still there, but the reason why it is not mentioned more often or that the UK is not reacting more forcibly to Spain’s attacks is because the two countries have more pressing issues on their cooperative agendas. Ambassadors are in contact almost every day, but not just to discuss Gibraltar. As members of the EU, there is much more to discuss than the Rock.”

What sets the cases of Gibraltar and the Falklands apart? After all, they are both British Overseas Territories disputed by other nations.

“Again, it is the location of Gibraltar that makes the difference. Its military importance is undeniable, both for the UK and NATO. Gibraltar’s airport was not built by the Rock of the UK, but by the US on behalf of the Allies in 1942 to ease the deployment to North Africa. Spain is also a member of NATO, but it is very unlikely that the Alliance will let the Rock go to Spain.”


Minutes after the results of the European referendum were announced, the Spanish acting Foreign Minister, José Manuel García-Margallo, declared that the referendum advanced Spain’s prospect to recuperating the Rock, and suggested that the best solution would be “British-Spanish co-sovereignty for a determined period of time, which after that time has elapsed, will head towards the restitution of Gibraltar to Spanish sovereignty”. This demonstrates Spain eagerness to get Gibraltar back although the UK and Gibraltar have no intention of negotiating the status of the Rock. Like Fabian Picardo said, “The position in Gibraltar has not changed, will not change… Gibraltar will always be British.”

The Brexit has certainly brought the dispute over Gibraltar back to the surface. The competing territorial claim between the UK and Argentina will probably follow suit and re-emerge on the international scene. That case will most probably be used by Spain as a lever to support their fight against the UK.

Although a direct confrontation between Spain and the UK is very unlikely, Britain’s current weak position could be the perfect time to kick then while they are down. The consequences for Gibraltar and European stability would, however, be dramatic.



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