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Gibraltar: the geopolitical stake

On 17 November the government of Gibraltar is holding a referendum over the Rock's continued status as a British Crown Colony. This move is prompted by the noises made by the British government, about beginning to share official sovereignty over it between themselves and the Spanish government.

The British state acquired the Rock of Gibraltar, an area approximately 6.5 square kilometres under the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. This was after it had been stormed by Anglo-Dutch troops in 1704 as a part of the War of Spanish Succession. The fortress there has remained a key part of British imperialism ever since: its location at the entrance to the Mediterranean sea making it a key position in the ever-present struggle over trade routes and geo-strategic influence. It also boasts a natural harbour, which made it invaluable as a key point in the supplying of naval forces and overseas expeditionary forces in the region. For these reasons, it was a tremendous asset for the British Empire.


Bulwark of freedom or military outpost?

The population of the Rock developed in almost permanent subordination to the military fortress there. The inhabitants, always a small number (about the size of an average town), only gained any sort of municipal democracy in 1945. This despite in 1934 a total of 3152 (out of an electoral register of 3890) calling for a majority of the city council to be elected. Such a movement for political democracy in the colony was quickly reversed by the Second World War. In 1941, the Governor of the fortress assumed supreme executive control, and arranged for the 16,700 civilians to be evacuated, as a hindrance to a fortress in war. The fortress of Gibraltar then went on to be a key strategic locale in the war in the Med.

Strategic asset
Needless to say, the rulers of Spain are distinctly dischuffed at having lost possession of this strategic asset, and the threat that such a heavily armed fortress/supply dump provides to their own security. This has not been merely confined to the era of gentlemanly politics and the “great game” of the 19th century rivalries. It continues to this day as the basics premise of the relationship between the EU “partner” states of Britain and Spain.

In 1964 the UN commission on decolonisation agreed with the Spanish position on the future of Gibraltar, over that of Britain and the Gibraltarians. Franco's dictatorship then used this as an excuse to lay the colony under siege, closing down its transport and communication links, totally sealing off the land border. This situation lasted until 1982, when the border was opened once more but for pedestrians only. This change only came about because Margaret Thatcher's government agreed at a meeting in Brussels (hence the name “Brussels Process”) to put the sovereignty of the colony on the negotiating table in exchange for the lifting of the siege.

Essentially, Spain used its capacity to harass and deny access to the Rock in order to win concessions from the British government. This much is tacit in the speeches made by ministers in the present British government, who try to sell the Brussels Process in terms of the potential for investment in Gibraltar. On Gibraltar television, Peter Hain said that a settlement of the border dispute could lead to “investment in the harbour, in the airport, in the whole infrastructure to make Gibraltar the centre for finance, for transport, for the whole southern Iberian Peninsular”. Indeed, the Foreign Office is trying to sell the deal as a matter of British “national interest”. This is because, they claim, Spain is blocking European air traffic proposals which could reduce travel costs and speed travel within Europe, so expanding the market – and profit prospects.

On 12 July the Foreign Secretary Jack Straw reported to the House of Commons on the current state of negotiations between Britain and Spain. The broad agreement reached thus far is that Britain and Spain will “share sovereignty” over Gibraltar, with guarantees for wide-reaching autonomy for the town, and possible dual nationality for Gibraltarian citizens, and finally granting Gibraltar access to the single European market (something Spain has been trying to block since it joined the EU in 1986). The thrust of the deal is that in exchange for the symbolism of sovereignty, Gibraltar and through it British capital invested in it will be able to play a role in the European single market.

Whilst Britain is willing to sacrifice the semblance of sovereignty, it will not give up the military base there. Thus, whilst it is willing to give ground on the pomp and show of sovereignty, it refuses to give up the basis of its presence in the area. Spain is well aware of this caveat, and the military base may yet prove to be a continuing sticking point in the negotiations. All will depend on whether Spain feels it may gain sufficient profit from taking a share of the income from the trade of an expanded Gibraltar.

Artificial entities
The other complicating factor is the determination of the Gibraltarians themselves. Their situation of living in a fortress has led to a siege mentality, and they are overwhelmingly hostile to joint sovereignty with Spain. In 1969, as a response to the UN commission's outcome, a referendum was held in Gibraltar, and 12,000 people voted for Britain, versus 44 for Spain. There is little likelihood that the new referendum this year is going to change any of that.

This is not because of some mystical link with the mother country, as some breeds of nationalist would have it. Gibraltar is a classic example of the artificiality of national entities. The people who settled there did so largely as a result of the existence of the fortress and its position as a trading centre. Early censuses record the population being split evenly among Britons, Jews and Genoese. Indeed, the Genoese formed the dominant cultural part of Gibraltar for most of the 18th and 19th centuries. Of course, that culture was one formed and defined by the experience of living on a surrounded fortress next to a hostile power.

In such a context, it is no surprise that the emergent “natives” of Gibraltar come to define themselves in relationship to the ownership of a patch of land and against the very idea of Spain and Spanishness. By defining themselves thus, they are effectively making resolution with Spain impossible except by the annihilation of the culture that has arisen from that circumstance. Much in a similar way to the Ulstermen and their definition of themselves against Ireland and all it stands for.

The two groups are in much of a like situation. The fetishisation of a particular patch of land stands in opposition to the pragmatic interests of capital. Straw has already indicated his intention to ignore the November referendum, on the bizarre grounds that he already knows that the Gibraltarians are against shared sovereignty without needing a ballot. He insists, however, that he will continue negotiating, because it is in everyone's interest to reach some sort of deal. Clearly the plan is to present a fait accompli, and sell it as the only possible resolution to the problems of Gibraltar.

This all goes to demonstrate that, even between supposed partners within Europe, the nature of the division of the world into units of property means continual disputes over the “rights” of the owners of that property, and that the continued definition of human identity within terms of such units of property continues to be a block to rational co-operation. International politics continues to be about the rights of property and the realpolitik of the force that backs up such claims. Despite the claimed existence of an “international community”, the power of arms continues to be the ultimate bedrock of international politics, referendums notwithstanding.