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2 April 2001

The most idiotic quarrel on earth

The ancient dispute between Spain and Britain over Gibraltar threatens to reopen. John Carlin report

By John Carlin

What with the foot-and-mouth epidemic, renewed war in the Balkans, the fall in the stock exchange and the impending British election, it is hardly surprising that some items of what we might normally consider “news” should have fallen through the cracks. Take, for example, Spain’s threat a couple of weeks back to go to war with Britain.

That’s right, war. Or something that sounded very much like it. On 14 March, before the assembled Congress in Madrid, the Spanish foreign minister, Josep Pique, warned that Britain was contemplating “a hostile act of the utmost gravity” that would lead to “a serious deterioration” in Hispano-British relations.

Had Pique gone mad? Did he not understand that his prime minister, Jose MarIa Aznar, was terribly proud of the “relacion especial” he had cultivated in recent years with Tony Blair? Had no one explained to Pique that, quite apart from such details as Spain and Britain’s common membership of Nato and the EU, the Spanish economy would virtually cease to exist if British tourism dried up?

It made no sense. Pique’s head would have to roll, surely?

Far from it. Al contrario. Not only did the opposition parties in Congress give the foreign minister their unqualified patriotic backing, Aznar himself came out and declared that, yes indeed, what we were talking about here was something “very grave”.

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What are the Spaniards on about?

That eternal imbecility: Gibraltar. There can be little doubt that if a prize were awarded, a World Cup held, to determine the single most idiotic conflict on the planet, the 300-year-old sovereignty dispute between Spain and Britain over a chunk of rock four square miles in size (population 30,000; 99 per cent anti-Spanish) would emerge a comfortable winner.

We are talking not about the most bloody conflict, but about the conflict that is most inexcusably, most unnecessarily, most pig-headedly dumb. No one, for example, is making any money out of the battle for Gibraltar – in contrast, say, to the generals of the half-dozen or so armies scrapping it out in Congo. No one has the excuse, as the Palestinians and the Israelis and thousands of other zealots have had since time immemorial, that the other side worships an antagonistic deity. There isn’t even the pretext of a noble cause, of saving the world from communism or something.

The irrationality of the Gibraltar question is deliciously pure: delicious because it appears to have produced no victims in more than 200 years – since the Spanish lifted their last full-on siege in 1783, to be precise; pure because of the impossibility of discerning anywhere on the horizon anything that might hazily resemble religion, money, ideology or any other racket of any kind. Fantastically, no interest is being served, no pocket lined, no god appeased by the perpetuation of a conflict that shows no sign at all of letting up, ever.

Why are we witnessing, today, the most virulent official expressions of anti-British sentiment since the time of Franco?

Amazingly enough, it has to do with the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713. In Article X of said hoary old treaty, which brought to an end the War of the Spanish Succession, Spain’s Philip V (referred to in the text as “the Catholic King”) yielded Gibraltar to “the Crown of Great Britain . . . to be held and enjoyed absolutely with all manner of right for ever”.

There was a catch, though, an opportunity for the legal eagles of future Spanish generations to reclaim sovereignty over a piece of territory that, by the logic of geography, belongs to Spain as obviously as Land’s End belongs to Britain. The last clause of Article X says that if Britain should ever decide to part with Gibraltar, for whatever reason, then Spain would have first option (“preference . . . before any others”) to get it back.

The reason why the Spanish are suddenly throwing their toys out of the cot is that, while they smell an opportunity to cash in at last on that little legal proviso, they suspect perfidious Albion will renege on the deal. What has happened is that Gibraltar’s House of Assembly, a Lilliputian version of the Westminster parliament, is preparing to pass a constitutional amendment, the upshot of which will be greater self-government, less government on the whims of the colonial mother country. “Aha!” cry the Spanish. “What we’re really talking here is independence, right? Well, we can’t have any of that. It says in the treaty that if Gibraltar ceases to be British, it becomes Spanish.”

If the Gibraltarians assume control over their own affairs (so the excruciatingly legalistic Spanish thinking goes), it be-hoves Britain to do its duty as per the ancient agreement – not to rubber-stamp the decision of Gibraltar’s House of Assembly. In other words, and here is the rub, Spain believes that greater value should be attached to the wording of a document, signed by a bunch of European despots 300 years ago, than to the democratic will of the vast majority of Gibraltar’s inhabitants.

Hence Prime Minister Aznar’s thunderous warning, rolled across the front pages, that: “Any alteration of the status of Gibraltar would represent a grave break with the Treaty of Utrecht and, as a consequence, Spain would consider such an alteration to be a very grave act.”

No one in Spain appears to find this funny. Instead, politicians of all stripes are vying with each other to see who can come up with the most eloquent expressions of outrage. One senior Socialist Party politician went so far as to declare that (horrors) “the Madrid-London axis in the EU” was dead.

So what might happen, in the event of Gibraltar achieving independence from Britain? (This is a highly unlikely event, by the way, not sought by anyone in Gibraltar – but, never mind, let us not spoil the game, the enjoyable froth of moral superiority that righteous indignation bestows.)

These measures would not be quite as thrillingly belligerent as Pique initially seemed to suggest. Once one goes beyond the soundbite hostilities to the detail of his pronouncements, one discovers that, no, the Spanish military are not planning a Malvinas-style “recovery” of the Rock.

So, if it’s not war, what is it? What it is, explained Pique, is that Gibraltar is going to get it in the neck, that’s what. There would be “greater confrontation” with the Gibraltarians, tougher restrictions on the use of airspace, that sort of thing. No one in the Spanish Congress felt compelled at this point to draw the foreign minister’s attention to any one of the many absurdities in the position he has taken, presumably because every Spanish government since Franco has done the same.

Someone might have pointed out that Spain has a colonial enclave in North Africa. Ceuta, on Moroccan soil, is clearly visible most days of the year from Gibraltar. Someone else might have wondered why on earth the Spanish Congress was dignifying the issue of Gibraltar with even a mention, given that most ordinary Spaniards are less interested in reclaiming sovereignty over the Rock than most British people are in maintaining it over the Falklands. And perhaps, too, someone might have pointed out the crass hypocrisy that successive Spanish governments have displayed on the matter.

The reason is this. Because of the legalistic insistence on the biblical sacredness of the Utrecht texts, Spain feels unable ever to recognise the truth: that its problem is not with Britain but with the people of Gibraltar, and that the only obstacle to Spanish sovereignty over Gibraltar is the will of the Gibraltarian people.

Thus, Britain receives all the rhetorical heat, but because relations with Britain are too important, and the British capacity for retribution too great, it is not the powerful Brits but the puny Gibraltarians – the legally non-existent Gibraltarians – who suffer the consequences of Spanish frustration.

Not only bullies, but petty to boot, the Spaniards’ idea of punitive action against Gibraltar consists of interfering with the island’s mobile phone system; instructing customs officials to generate gratuitously long queues of cars at the border crossing (average wait to cross into Spain: one hour, on a good day); allowing only British planes that take off in Britain to land at Gibraltar’s ludicrously underused airport.

The Gibraltarians could end all this foolishness simply by bowing to geographical reality and accepting Spanish sovereignty. After all, Spanish is the language that the vast majority of Gibraltarians speak at home, whether they be of Maltese, Genoese, Jewish, Moorish, British or Spanish descent.

Spanish, too, is the feel of the narrow, sun-dazzled little streets of Gibraltar. Glance at the policemen, and you could be forgiven for imagining you had stumbled into a fancy dress party. There are not too many other parts of the world where you will come face to face with a couple of impeccably kitted-out British bobbies who speak to each other in the language of the flamenco dancers: richly accented Andalusian Spanish.

What’s more, all Gibraltarians do their shopping in Spain; almost all of them have close relatives in Spain; as many as half own property in Spain. And because something like half a million Brits born in Great Britain have decided, for all practical purposes, to become Spanish by resettling in Spain, paying their taxes in Spain, you have to wonder why 30,000 culturally Spanish, Gibraltarian Brits can’t just shut up and do the same.

But there it is. The islanders say they do not feel Spanish, they feel Gibraltarian. And if they choose not to carry Spanish passports, because it happens to be almost a defining characteristic of the Gibraltarian to be mistrustful of Spain, well, that’s democracy. If you happen to be a politician, democracy also means speaking and behaving in such a way as to convince the people to give you their support. Everything the Spanish politicians say and do on Gibraltar has precisely the opposite effect on the local population.

Is there a way out of this crazy situation? Of course there is. If the Spanish would conquer their pride, the Gibraltarians would overcome their prejudice. If the Spanish treated the Gibraltarians less small-mindedly, if they could extend a little largesse their way, it would be a matter of time before nature took its course, before the logic of geography and the principle of democracy merged, and the Spanish flag flew once more over the Rock. Because, notwithstanding the bombast of Pique and company (who really should, and do, know better), once a majority of Gibraltarians said they wanted to be Spanish the British would swiftly, cheerfully, gratefully roll down the Union Jack.

Meanwhile, the imbecility goes on. The Berlin Wall falls, apartheid collapses, but the little Iron Curtain at the southern tip of Europe refuses to budge. The South Africans, the Northern Irish, the warring factions in Burundi, even the Palestinians and Israelis, have been able to come up with the semantic formulations that allow them to sit down and talk to each other. Yet the parties in the Gibraltar conflict, affluent, democratic, western European allies all, cannot; although no blood has been shed, even though there is nothing at stake – nothing but the fear of losing face.

It is rather like a pure test case, held in the most propitious of laboratory conditions. Everything is in place for the rational, sensible, adult resolution of a silly old war’s legacy. Yet what we find is that, when vanity enters the arena, when national pride contaminates the mental processes, idiocy knows no limit, and folly no restraint.

John Carlin is a correspondent for El Pais

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