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‘A foreign field that is forever England’: Gibraltar and self-determination

August 11, 2013   ·   0 Comments


This week has seen the latest episode of Britain’s colonial heritage creating international tension. The Spanish government, under the premiership of Mariano Rajoy, has expressed its repugnance over the seventy concrete blocks ‘dumped’ into the waters of Gibraltar, a long-standing British Overseas Territory (BOT). These blocks will form an artificial reef, disrupting Spanish fishing.

Britain, which has been in possession of Gibraltar since 1713, has responded calmly but firmly to threats of a new border tariff for Gibraltarians crossing into Spain. In accordance with his commitment to the 30,000 British citizens there, David Cameron spoke directly to Rajoy on the phone in a rather Chamberlainesque fashion. The Spanish premier promised to ‘reduce’ the time consuming border checks, but could not prevent the routine visit of a Royal Navy frigate to Gibraltran waters becoming a show of force.

Dr Joseph Garcia, Deputy Chief Minister of Gibraltar, stated that ‘The root cause of all this is not fishing. The root cause is sovereignty’. And herein lays the problem: Since Francisco Franco first enquired about reclaiming Gibraltar in 1953, Madrid has refused to give up on what is ultimately an outcrop of the Spanish mainland. But with equal vigour, London has refused to simply relinquish a sizeable portion of its citizens.

The strange reality is that, in accordance with its EU membership, Gibraltar is well within its rights to pursue self-determination and even seek independence. However, it has consistently expressed no desire to do so. The constitution states that ‘Her Majesty’s Government will never enter into arrangements under which the people of Gibraltar would pass under the sovereignty of another state against their freely and democratically expressed wishes.’

In both 1967 and 2002, referendums concluded unanimously in favour of retaining British sovereignty (99.64 and 98.48 per cent, respectively), and nothing is likely to change any time soon. Fundamentally, Madrid needs to consider whether it really wants to absorb a foreign community against its wishes.

Similar sentiment was expressed earlier this year by the people of the British-owned Falkland Islands: a referendum confirmed that 99.8% of voters wished to maintain the status quo. As The World Outline reported in March, the result enabled the islanders to ‘point to any Arab Spring state to affirm the importance of the will of the people in matters of national governance’, and Foreign Secretary William Hague emphasised to the Commons that ‘the result should be recognised by the whole international community as a definitive act of self-determination.’

Like in Gibraltar, the question of sovereignty was at the heart of this referendum. All the while, Argentina’s president, Cristina Fernández, vehemently maintained that the Islands were the rightful property of her people. In familiar fashion, David Cameron assured her that as long as the islanders expressed a desire to remain British, the question of sovereignty was not open to debate. In the same week Gibraltar filled headlines, Fernández confronted the UN Security Council with a plea that Argentina and Britain again try to settle the debate.

It seems British overseas possessions continue to serve as convenient distractions for those invested states experiencing domestic unrest. Foreign politicians play upon the seemingly anachronistic nature of these sporadic bastions of colonialism.

But the fact of the matter is BOTs, which encompass around 260,000 British citizens, feel ‘more British than the Britain most of us know’. Whilst, for example, the governments of Spain and Argentina may see sovereignty disputes as based on realist assets, i.e. physical landmass, it is surely impossible to ignore the unquantifiable elements of culture and heritage that have organically influenced BOTs as international actors. If self-determination means anything, it is that the inhabitants of a territory control their own destiny. In this respect, it is hard to see how Gibraltar, the Falklands, or any other ‘colony’ can be criticised as illegal or bereft of sovereignty.

Possibly the most ironic outcome of these disputes is the realisation that Britain’s distant possessions have gradually evolved into egalitarian sub-states, democratically enforcing the age-old by-products of imperialism. They continue to loyally emanate towards the cultural epicentre, but have replicated its legal and social infrastructures. For geographical entities acquired through such forceful means, they now exercise an almost Athenianesque franchise, and have a very strong case for self-determination. In 2013, who is to say they cannot remain British?

In many ways, this has proved an unfortunate accident for Britain. After all, it is a financial burden to defend citizens that live so many thousands of miles away. The cost of maintaining defence capabilities in the Falklands, for example, is expected to reach £20,000 per inhabitant in a few years’ time, but what choice does Whitehall have.

It is possible a corner will be turned in 2014, when Scotland takes to the polls in a referendum offering the prospect of independence. If in the (unlikely) event the Scottish people choose to depart from the Union, new questions will be raised over the very concept of sovereignty in the UK. Can a community united for 300 years shed its identity so easily? What will being ‘British’ even mean? It could be that the result in Scotland acts as an impetus for BOTs to seek self-determined, if economically unsustainable, independence. On the other hand, they might be strengthened in their resolve to fight off would-be suitors.

Whether or not British politicians really consider BOTs an economic asset in the new century, and the author suspects they quietly do, there is really little choice in the matter. After all, they are inhabited by British citizens and enjoy Crown protection. Anything other than full commitment is tantamount to callous treachery. But their very nature is a fascinating study in the sinews of nationality, citizenship and sovereignty. The likes of Rajoy and Fernández may have their grievances with modern diplomacy, but ultimately they are fighting an uphill battle against the oldest norms of international relations: without military intervention, land belongs to those who inhabit it.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Michael Jones

UK Editor
Michael is a graduate of King’s College London, where he studied for an MA in International Relations, and also holds a BA in History from the University of Sheffield. His areas of interest are British foreign and defence policy, Anglo-American relations, and Europe's involvement in NATO. Contact me: