The Corner Rock: Gibraltar, Spain, and Brexit

By Alfonso Goizueta Alfaro

Isabella the Catholic (1474-1504), the grand Queen of Castile and the mother of the Spanish state, outlined in her political testament her desire for the Rock of Gibraltar to always be part of the Kingdom of Spain because of its geostrategic importance. In 1713, the Treaty of Utrecht, by which the Great Powers recognised Philippe d’Anjou as King of Spain, gave Great Britain control of the Rock and thus enabled her to reign over the western Mediterranean. Since the 18thcentury there has been profound irredentism in Spain regarding British presence in Gibraltar, that Rock which Spain’s ancestral queen always wanted to be part of the patrimony of her descendants.

The Strait of Gibraltar is one of the most important geopolitical areas of the world, for it is one of three entrances into the Mediterranean Sea – the other one being the Dardanelles and Suez. It is a vital enclave for the oil industry: 80% of the Middle East’s and North Africa’s oil and gas exports to Europe and North America go through the Strait. Since 1713, the Rock has been under British rule, yet Brexit has thrown the question of Gibraltarian sovereignty back on the table.

Once the United Kingdom exits the Union in the year 2020, the EU will thus lose her monopoly over this crucial geostrategic zone, for the Strait will now have to be ‘shared’ with a non-EU power. Gibraltar isn’t part of the territory of the United Kingdom; it is a colony of the British Crown. The only EU border the United Kingdom will hold after Brexit will be that of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland. According to European jurisdiction, Spain and Gibraltar shared a ‘European-like’ border only because the foreign relations of Gibraltar were linked to those of an EU-member state (the United Kingdom). The moment Great Britain divorces the EU, Gibraltar will lose this special juridical connection with the Kingdom of Spain. This issue opened the question of the thousands of Spaniards from the surrounding area of Gibraltar (the so-called ‘Campo de Gibraltar’) who cross the border every day to work at the Rock. Would they be able to continue crossing it after Brexit? Tobacco smuggling, fiscal evasion and immigration coming from Africa are also key issues surrounding the Rock.

Gibraltar is one of the world’s most important trading posts.

This is why the European Commission gave Spain the power to veto any Brexit deal compromising Gibraltar. The current situation in Spanish politics is tense. José Manuel García-Margallo, Foreign Minister (2011-2016), declared in 2016 that Brexit meant Gibraltar was “one step closer to becoming Spanish again”. Mr García-Margallo, 74, a Harvard Law graduate with great diplomatic, historical-cultural and legal baggage, argued that never since the times of Utrecht had a Spanish government had such an opportunity to recover the Rock. In order to prevent the traumatic rupture between Gibraltar and Spain after Brexit, Mr García-Margallo argued in favour of Anglo-Spanish co-sovereignty of the Rock. This would allow Gibraltar to remain attached to an EU-member state after the British divorce, safeguarding the interests of all of those, Spanish and Gibraltarians, who cross the border on a regular basis.

However, Mr García-Margallo fell from power in November 2016 and his successors (one conservative, one socialist) have failed to continue pursuing the co-sovereignty project. Mr Pedro Sánchez, socialist prime minister since June 2018, declared in the Congress of Deputies that he had been speaking, at a European summit, with Prime Minister Theresa May about the Gibraltar Question. He told the Chamber that he would be equally pleased whether there was a Gibraltar deal or not. It was shocking: the current Spanish government forsakes one of the greatest geostrategic opportunities since 1713 to recover control over the crucial Strait area. Mr Sánchez had even relinquished negotiations over Gibraltar’s airport. “Gibraltar will no longer be a problem in arriving at a Brexit deal”, said Mr Sánchez after the European Council’s summit last October. Spain is about to lose a great opportunity for enhancing her position in the western Mediterranean. The option of co-sovereignty would enable Spain (and consequently the European Union) to exercise a greater control of the Strait area. This is crucial in order to strengthen relations with the Kingdom of Morocco in areas of immigration and drug trafficking control.

Furthermore, it is in the interest of the EU to have full control of the Strait area. The reason for this is the conflict which is developing in the northern Atlantic amongst the Arctic powers. As the Arctic melts and lucrative oil, gas and minerals reservoirs begin to appear in the boreal lands, maritime routes to the Arctic Ocean become ever more important. A fierce struggle amongst the Arctic powers is unfolding; control of Gibraltar, the shortest route from Suez onto the Northern Sea and the Arctic Ocean, will be crucial in order to control and preserve the Arctic balance of power, argued Colonel Pedro Baños, a Spanish strategist and author of “How They Rule the World”.

Prime Ministers Pedro Sánchez and Theresa May have settled the issue of Gibraltar.

The key argument in favour of Anglo-Spanish co-sovereignty of the Rock is that of preserving exclusive EU-presence in the Strait after Brexit. This is extremely important for the Union’s grand strategy against Russia, an aggressive power on which Brussels has imposed severe economic sanctions. Russia uses the Strait in order to send warships from her ports in the Baltic and the Arctic to the eastern Mediterranean. Ensuring that the Strait is under the total control of EU-members is key in order to check Russian maritime routes in the western Mediterranean. Of course, Russian power will be in check even if Britain keeps total sovereignty over Gibraltar, but nothing guarantees that British usage of the Rock will be in the Union’s interest regarding migration, commerce, fishing and geopolitics in the post-Brexit era. A harmony of interests regarding the Gibraltar question is guaranteed in the Brexit deal.

Although the times of combating the pirates and corsairs of Barbary are lost in history, the Strait of Gibraltar continues to be an indispensable geostrategic enclave for Spain and therefore for the European Union. In a world of globalised trade, the Strait becomes ever more important; Gibraltar is a cornerstone for commerce and maritime security. The fact that part of the European side of the Strait might end up being controlled by a non-EU power after Brexit, is a geopolitical debacle for the conjunct EU-Spanish strategy in the western Mediterranean. Therefore, one of the requirements of a Brexit deal should be to put forward a project which advocates for Anglo-Spanish co-sovereignty. This is the only way that this critical area will continue to be fully controlled by EU powers during a time in which, due to populist nationalism and the Russian threat, the European Union is at its weakest.

Alfonso Goizueta Alfaro is a 2nd year BA History and International Relations student at King’s College London. His main interests are geopolitics and diplomacy, and he is the author of several books, amongst them “Limitando el Poder 1871-1939”, a history of Western diplomacy in the interwar period.

One thought on “The Corner Rock: Gibraltar, Spain, and Brexit

  1. An interesting and clarifying article on this subject. It gives a historical view about Gibraltar and outlines the importance of decisions to be taken in the present moment with Brexit ahead.
    Congratulations to the author.


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