Rock of the Rages: Gibraltar Border Spat Gets Spain and U.K. PMs Involved

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Workers throw concrete blocks from a Gibraltar tug into the sea in an area where Spanish fishing boats usually sail around, off Gibraltar's coast, on July 25, 2013

It happens every year about this time, like blockbuster releases or a bad algae bloom. As the temperature heats up, so too does the rhetoric seeping from the southern end of the Iberian Peninsula. But this year’s incarnation has been notable for its level of vitriol. With comparisons to North Korea and the dictator Franco emanating from one side, and threats of new taxes and border delays from the other, the sabers are rattling at a volume not heard in decades in the 300-year-old tiff involving Spain, Great Britain and Gibraltar.

Although tensions over fishing rights had been building for months, this year’s spat began in earnest in late July when Gibraltar, a British territory that Spain wants for its own, began dumping concrete blocks studded with iron spikes into waters off its coast. The Gibraltar government said the blocks were intended to create an artificial reef that would foster fish stocks; Spanish fishermen saw them as a devious attempt to tear their nets and keep them from their habitual fishing grounds.

But torn nets were only the beginning. Decrying Gibraltar’s unilateral decision to sink the blocks, Spain made one of its own: a day after the blocks were sunk, Spanish Civil Guards began subjecting the steady tide of cars that daily cross what Spain calls the “fence” (it refuses to acknowledge the line as a “border”) into Gibraltar to heightened, even meticulous, inspections. Suddenly the crossing of a few meters was taking as long as seven hours. By Aug. 3, Spanish Foreign Affairs Minister José Manuel García-Margallo was threatening worse: to look into a tax that would exact a €50 ($67) levy from every car entering Spain from Gibraltar as well as measures to prevent any plane arriving at or departing from Gibraltar’s tiny airport from entering Spanish airspace. Explaining his position to newspaper ABC, García-Margallo sounded not unlike the hero of a summer blockbuster. “The party’s over,” he said.

The Spanish moves and rhetoric got Gibraltar chief minister Fabian Picardo so worked up that he compared the Spanish minister’s statements to “the kind of declaration you would hear from North Korea, not from a member of the European Union.” Appealing for assistance from the British government, which had already called the Spanish ambassador in for questioning over the delays, Picardo requested that the Royal Navy be sent to the Rock as a suitably dissuasive measure.

Why so much bluster about what is essentially a hunk of rock? Only 30,000 people live within Gibraltar’s 6.7 sq km, and although most are British nationals, they rely on Spain for things like telephone service and reasonably priced groceries. It would seem a perfect place for a little cross-cultural cooperation, if it weren’t for lingering disputes surrounding the 300-year-old Treaty of Utrecht, which in the course of ending the 18th century War of Spanish Succession ceded Gibraltar to Britain.

The treaty failed to mention whether that concession included the isthmus attaching Spain to the Rock and, even more pertinently, whether the deal came with any water included. And therein lies the root of today’s conflicts. “Spain maintains that the original deal included no territorial waters,” says Martín Ortega Carcelén, a professor of international law at Madrid’s Complutense University. “But Great Britain says that it’s only logical, that any territory in the world includes an extension of water. How many miles of water? No one knows. They could negotiate that, but there is no negotiation.”

There was an attempt at negotiation a few years ago, when Spain’s then Socialist government proposed a “tripartite forum” that would bring Britain, Spain and Gibraltar to the table to negotiate as equal partners. But one of the first things that the current government, in the hands of the conservative Popular Party, did upon being elected in 2011 was to reject three-way negotiations and to insist that what it perceives as a colonial relic be returned to its purportedly rightful owners. “Margallo started out by saying the Gibraltar was Spanish,” says Alejandro del Valle, an international-law professor at the University of Cádiz. “And everything got blocked from there. There are no channels of dialogue anymore, so everything that happens becomes a problem.”

Adding to the complication is the fact that the current Spanish government has made it clear that it will only negotiate with Britain, not with Gibraltar itself. That, in turn, may help explain why Gibraltar is acting so forcefully. “Putting down those blocks, comparing a European Union democracy to North Korea — these are not acts of good faith,” says law professor Ortega. “Picardo is asserting himself, trying to make Gibraltar’s situation irreversible.”

Gibraltarians themselves confess to no fears that Britain will leave them out. “We trust the U.K. government is going to do what they’ve said because they know they’ll get themselves into a huge mess if they do an about-face,” says Dominique Searle, editor of the newspaper Gibraltar Chronicle.

On the morning of Aug. 7, British Prime Minister David Cameron had a 15-minute phone conversation with his Spanish counterpart Mariano Rajoy, which, in his Twitter account, he called “constructive,” though Spain continued to insist that the block dumping was “unacceptable.” After a second call later in the day between their Foreign Ministers, both countries agreed to form an ad hoc working group to resolve the situation. That undramatic outcome was just about what Searle expected from this latest contretemps. “There’s huge pressure on both sides to turn to a little lowlight diplomacy,” he says. “Some Spanish fishermen will get a wad of cash, and it will all go away.” At least, that is, until next summer.