Why are Spain and Britain butting heads over Gibraltar?

Tensions between the two have ratcheted up since Gibraltar dumped concrete blocks into the sea in July.

Marcos Moreno/AP
People and their vehicles wait to cross the border in Gibraltar in June. The chief minister of Gibraltar on Monday accused Spain of saber-rattling for suggesting it could impose a new entry and exit fee for the British territory.

There is no risk that the Spanish Armada will be unleashed any time soon, but British Prime Minister David Cameron said Monday he’s “seriously concerned” about rising diplomatic tension over Gibraltar, a 2.6 square mile British vestige of imperial wars on Spain’s southern Mediterranean coast.

Passionate Spanish and British spats over Gibraltar, just off the entrance to the Atlantic Ocean, are recurring and carry a powerful historical load, although the sliver of land commonly known as The Rock – which barely fits an airport and its 30,000 people – is otherwise of little significance.

Mr. Cameron was specifically addressing Spain’s plans to pressure Gibraltar, after a tit-for-tat spat ultimately over fishing rights and disputed sovereignty of the water surrounding the British Overseas Territory.

European Courts recognized Spain’s claim to the waters twice in 2012, but the issue resurfaced with force in July when the Gibraltarian government unilaterally sunk dozens of huge concrete blocks, arguing it wanted to create an artificial reef.

Madrid was enraged by the unannounced decision to sink the blocks, which impede Spanish fleets from fishing, and now demands that every block be removed. In the meantime, although officially not retaliation, Spain increased customs-border controls that are creating up to seven-hour delays at the only crossing into the territory.

A uncomfortable stalemate

British authority over Gibraltar dates back to the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, when Spain gave “perpetual” control to the UK in a humiliating consequence of the War of Spanish Succession.

But The Rock hasn't been a strategic asset since World War II. Once Europe began integrating, Gibraltar's military importance became minimal, other than for a docking port. Today, the territory is an off-shore paradise and tourist destination, but hardly a prized asset.

And there is no dispute over whether Gibraltar is British. Britain is constitutionally committed to defend the region, and Gibraltarians have overwhelmingly voted in referendums for things to stay that way. A Spanish-British deal to share sovereignty was rejected as early as 2002.

Thousands of Spaniards also cross over into Gibraltar to work every day, and although some Spanish fishermen have been affected, Gibraltar is basically too small to matter in the broader scope of economic and political relations between the UK and Spain.

Furthermore, any Spanish claim over Gibraltar is seriously undermined by its own circumstances. Spain has sovereignty over two small enclaves, Ceuta and Melilla, along Morocco’s coast on the Strait of Gibraltar, also a vestige of its own colonial past in Africa. Morocco claims both, and hopes to get them back some day. As such, Morocco repeats any Spanish policy toward Gibraltar to press its own ambitions in Ceuta and Melilla.

Disputed waters

As a result, there's little left over Gibraltar for Spain and Britain to debate, except for one thing: The Treaty of Utrecht didn’t specify who controlled the water around Gibraltar’s port.

And the two countries have failed to compromise. Last year, in the most serious standoff in decades, Spanish and British security vessels got into a shouting match – and even collided, literally – over similar fishing rights disputes.

Further complicating matters is the fact that the self-governing territory has thrown a wrench into the attempts to reach a compromise. Gibraltar Chief Minister Fabian Picardo was elected largely on his promise to reject a 1999 agreement over fishing rights, at times forcibly ejecting Spanish fishermen from disputed waters.

Spain, though, refuses to talk to Gibraltar's authorities, who it doesn’t recognize as an equal stakeholder, and will only talk to the UK.

But the UK can’t appear like its negotiating the future of Gibraltarians – who are British citizens – without their involvement.

A matter of pride

So why the to-do now? For Spain, it’s mostly a question of pride.

Although Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel García Margallo cited economic concerns and habitat preservation as the driver behind the new measures it’s proposing, the reality is that even for Spain, there is little more than honor at stake.

In an interview published Sunday in a Spanish newspaper, Mr. Margallo said several additional steps against Gibraltar were being considered, including a 50-euro ($66) entry and exit fee, more fiscal oversight, airspace restrictions.

Mr. Picardo said Spain was “saber-rattling,” and that Margallo’s response was reminiscent of “Franco’s time” – an indelicate suggestion referring to dictator Francisco Franco.

Despite all the talk though, both Spain and the UK have insisted there is only room for diplomacy.

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