Between A Rock - The Inside Story of the Gibraltar Crisis

Foreign Affairs & Security
Tuesday, August 6, 2013
Ben Harris-Quinney

The current diplomatic fracture between the United Kingdom and Spain over Gibraltar will frustrate anyone who understands the underlying causes of what is now happening and why.

In 2004 the UK and Spain, under Blair and Aznar, were the closest of allies. Contextualised in the scramble to war in the Middle East, Blair promised Aznar shared ownership of Gibraltar.

Gibraltar’s destiny was surely of minor interest to Blair in the shadow of molding a new world order alongside the United States, it was easy for him to forget the inconvenient reality that Gibraltar is a democracy, and at least 90 percent of the Gibraltan population wouldn’t countenance anything other than remaining solely a sovereign British territory.

He was, however, taken at his word as a British Prime Minister in the family home of the Spanish President, and since Blair’s Indian giving there has existed far greater confusion and mistrust by Spain as to the British position on Gibraltar.

It is a position in fact, which can hardly be altered or dictated by a Prime Minister, and has never changed. Gibraltar is sovereign British territory gifted to the United Kingdom by Spain, whose population overwhelmingly wishes to remain British. No amount of border restriction, sanctions, horse trading or appeals to the European Union or United Nations will change that. The British and Spanish governments, at least post 2004, fully realise that.

Yet Spanish politicians are also aware that sabre rattling over Gibraltar boosts their poll ratings and fills their newspapers with stories about Gibraltar, as opposed to an ailing economy or government corruption scandal. They are also aggrieved by the false promise they received from Blair, who was then acting on behalf of the British people, but most crucially having been left out in the cold by the UK and the US post-Aznar, they feel by default that their future position in the world lies alongside France, with a hand in Latin America. The diplomatic failure that led them to this position is largely the fault of the Conservative Party.

I have worked with the governing Spanish conservative party, the Partido Popular (PP), since 2008. The Spanish economy began to collapse in 2006 under the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), two years before the global economic crisis hit, it was clear that sooner or later the PP would be back in power with a strong majority. Since 2008 the PP had been keen to foster stronger links with the Conservative Party, a party they see as being their political model and guiding light, and rekindle the alliance that Aznar had enjoyed with Britain and the United States.

But the Conservatives showed them the cold shoulder. The leadership and CCHQ rejected the invitation to be first among equals to the PP internationally, an invitation which was gratefully taken up by President Sarkozy in their absence, as the PP laid on an array of full stadiums and halls for the French UMP leader to speak to. I have no doubt that had the Conservative Party taken the opportunity in 2008, the issue of Gibraltar would never have spilled out onto the world stage in a war of words and posturing as it now has.

But the great tragedy of the failing has little to do with Gibraltar, which will undoubtedly remain British. Without any other foundation or focus, the entire relationship between Spain and the United Kingdom will continue to pivot around it, with vast cost to our mutual interests politically and nationally, in Europe and the wider world.

As to the tone the souring situation has set, it is worth noting that Madrid had planned to name a school and a street after the late Baroness Thatcher. In the last two weeks those plans have been shelved.

Stretching far beyond Gibraltar, our one million ex-pat citizens in Spain are, thanks to the draconian UK voting restrictions, likely to be left unrepresented at the whim of a government now keen to exert any pressure on the UK by whatever means.

We are a maximum of 4 years away from the conclusion of our promised re-negotiation with Europe – where once we could have had a strong triangulation of mutual interest from an allied UK, Spain and Czech Republic to counter the Franco-German pact – we instead have only more enemies within the EU.

More ominously, a week ago, the Spanish signed a contract with Argentina to provide them 20 second hand Mirage jets over the next 8 months. These jets will be within striking distance and a direct threat to British armed forces and citizens in the Falkland Islands. There can hardly be a starker example of how from the throwing of small rocks, great wars can grow.

The chances of a swift farewell to arms are now relatively slim. The Conservative Party has neglected its relationship with Spain for too long, and Jorge Moragas, a friend of Britain dating back to 2004, was replaced by Jose Margallo as Spanish Foreign Minister. Margallo is a man who has spent his entire life greeting every Brit he meets with the phrase “Gibraltar Espanyol”. He is unlikely to back down now.

There may, however, still be a way back from this. Rajoy has been significantly weakened by a corruption scandal that implicates him and much of his cabinet, even grandstand distractions like Gibraltar may not be able to hold off the calls for a serious public enquiry, which he would be unlikely to emerge successfully from. There remains a significant contingent of Aznar-aligned Anglophiles waiting in the wings of the PP, who wish to rebuild relations with the UK.

Figures like former President of Madrid (and the only non-British Dame of the British Empire) Esperanza Aguirre and Lord Garel-Jones, a noted Iberophile well known to the PP, might be able to lead negotiations to take the two nations back to at least a quiet friendship.

If a solution isn’t found quickly, it will become a crisis that defines the UK relationship with Spain, and Latin America, for the next decade. The cost to both nations will be far more than a €50 border crossing.

Ben Harris-Quinney is Chairman of the Bow Group. He also serves as President of Conservatives Abroad Madrid and Director of Conservative Friends of Spain.

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