After a number of postponements, the King of Spain’s state visit to the UK finally gets underway on 12 July 2017. Felipe VI is widely expected to raise the delicate matter of Gibraltar. If the history of the small British peninsula is any good indication of its future, it may become a bone of contention in the coming Brexit negotiations.
In his address to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, 20 September 2016, King of Spain Felipe VI raised the issue of Gibraltar and invited the UK to “end the colonial anachronism of Gibraltar”.
King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia of Spain will make a state visit to the United Kingdom from 12 to 14 July 2017. The last state visit to the UK by a Spanish monarch was in 1986, the year of Spain’s accession to the European Economic Community (EEC). Now, with affairs between Brussels and London strained, not even this diplomatic pageant has avoided the fallout from last year’s referendum. A longstanding dispute over Gibraltar’s sovereignty between Spain and the UK has been exacerbated as a consequence of Brexit and threatens to overshadow the state visit.
Originally scheduled for spring 2016, the visit was postponed because of a political crisis in Spain. Theresa May’s calling of a snap election in June 2017 saw it rescheduled once again. Meanwhile, hitherto banal rhetoric concerning Gibraltar has turned hysterical. Clearly the Rock of Gibraltar is set to become a 426m tall elephant in the Brexit negotiating room. To understand why, we must first consider the historical background.
Gibraltar’s renown is literally mythic. In ancient times it was regarded as one of the Pillars of Hercules (the other, either Monte Hacho or Jebel Musa, on the North African coast). A stylized depiction of this geographical feature appears in Spain’s coat of arms – an enduring reminder of Spanish maritime ambition. Literary enthusiasts will also appreciate the irony. In Dante’s Inferno, the Pillars symbolize the limits of knowledge, which Ulysses determines to sail through in his thirst for worldliness. Ultimately, the fruitless voyage leads to Mount Purgatory and disaster.
In 1704, during the War of the Spanish Succession, an Anglo-Dutch force captured Gibraltar. The Treaty of Utrecht ceded it to Great Britain ‘in perpetuity’ in 1713 and its location at the gateway to the Mediterranean served British interests well in the centuries that followed. The issue of Gibraltar’s sovereignty has blighted Anglo-Spanish diplomacy ever since.
Joined to the Iberian Peninsula, the famous Rock of Gibraltar juts out into the sea and is accessible from the Spanish mainland via Winston Churchill Avenue. As both Spain and the UK are EU member-states, the customs check along the border allows for the easy coming and going of Gibraltarians and Spaniards employed in the British Overseas Territory.
But this has not always been so. Spain’s late dictator, General Francisco Franco, ordered the closure of the frontier in 1969 after the promulgation of the Gibraltar Constitutional Order 1969, which enshrined the inhabitants’ desire that the territory remain British. The closed border outlived Franco and was only fully lifted in 1985, shortly before Spain joined the EEC.
The dispute has even impinged on formal relations between the Spanish and British crowns. In 1981, King Juan Carlos I boycotted Prince Charles and Diana Spencer’s wedding as they planned to launch their honeymoon from Gibraltar. Queen Sofía declined an invitation to Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee soirée in 2012 because of the dispute. And last year, Felipe VI brought the spat to global attention while addressing the UN’s General Assembly in New York.
Felipe will address the British Parliament during his visit. It remains to be seen whether he will use the opportunity to broach the Gibraltar dispute. Sections of the press are making hay out of the prospect. But this is pure sensationalism and not without precedent in any case. His father, Juan Carlos, did not shy away from raising the topic to British parliamentarians in 1986. Felipe’s speech will likely reiterate points he raised at the UN. There, he exposed the myopic attitude of Theresa May’s government by stating the plain fact that Brexit will inevitably change Gibraltar’s present arrangement.
“It remains to be seen whether he will use the opportunity to broach the Gibraltar dispute. Sections of the press are making hay out of the prospect.”
Indeed, the British Government’s obsession with pursuing a ‘hard Brexit’ has, until recently, disclosed its apparent indifference to Britain’s EU-bordering hinterland: namely Northern Ireland and Gibraltar. Theresa May’s initial zero-sum approach to Brexit negotiations would seem to vindicate the popular opinion that the referendum was designed to bridge the Conservative Party’s schism over Europe once and for all. The past year has seen her regurgitate a fantasy that the entire British population has put aside its differences and is suddenly united behind Brexit.
This patriotic ploy quelled unrest among erstwhile ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ Conservative politicians but also left Gibraltar and Northern Ireland on the back-burner. May’s rationale in calling a general election for June 2017 was to secure a parliamentary majority by casting the other parties as treasonous for daring to hold the government to account over Brexit. Ironic then that her Pyrrhic victory now has her dependent on MPs from one of these locations, while the sabre-rattling in Westminster has been muzzled for the time being.
Queen Elizabeth II in 2009. Picture by Thor via Flickr.
Nevertheless, Michael Howard’s comments in April 2017 betray the stench of jingoism that hangs over British Euroscepticism. The former Conservative Party leader spoke of a ‘Spanish-speaking’ conspiracy against British power abroad and had the temerity to equate present-day Spain with Galtieri’s Argentina by invoking the Falklands War. Thankfully, Spain’s foreign minister, Alfonso Dastis brushed it aside. Even so, such bellicose rhetoric has the potential to gain ground in these extraordinary times.
Minor skirmishes between Spanish and British vessels are an everyday occurrence in the waters around Gibraltar. If there is one place where the reality of a post-Brexit ‘hard border’ and its potential to aggravate tensions could not be clearer, it is here. 95.9 % of Gibraltarians voted to remain in the EU last year. Additionally, in 2002, 98.97 % rejected the notion that Britain and Spain ought to co-govern the territory. These stark results provide food for thought to those who perceive EU membership as incompatible with national sentiment.
Dastis’s predecessor, José-García Margallo, stated in no uncertain terms what Madrid’s reaction to Brexit would be days before the 2016 referendum. Hinting that the border might be closed, he also warned of a new forthrightness to Spain’s ongoing claims to the promontory. At least one of these threats has come true for now.
“95.9 % of Gibraltarians voted to remain in the EU last year.”
Despite the new dynamic to this never-ending debate, Felipe’s visit to the UK will surely go off with great pomp and warmth. After all, beyond the realm of diplomacy, the Spanish and British royals are themselves related by blood. In her speech at the 1986 state banquet for Juan Carlos I, Elizabeth II mentioned that the divergence between Spain and Europe for much of the twentieth century had made both ‘poorer’ as a result. Perhaps the least controversial thing Felipe could do during his visit would be to remind the UK of that verdict 31 years on.