24 April 2014

A day in Gibraltar, one of the most
southerly outposts of Europe

The Rock of Gibraltar ... is this part of the European Union, or just another territorial anachronism from by-gone wars (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

Is Gibraltar a country? Is Gibraltar a separate state? If not, where is a part of it? It elects no MPs to the British House of Commons, and it has its own parliament.

Is Gibraltar part of the European Union? Crossing the border from Spain at the town of La Línea de la Concepción, in the province of Cádiz on the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula, we joined a long queue of buses and cars to show our passports.

Gibraltar is not in the Eurozone, but then neither is the United Kingdom – although when I went shopping and to pay for coffee I found I was dealing in Euros, Sterling and the Gibraltar pound.

Crossing the frontier between Spain and Gibraltar (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Gibraltar is neither a colony nor a part of the United Kingdom, and its legal status is that of a British Overseas Territory. It has an area of 6 sq km (2.3 square miles) and a northern border with the Province of Cádiz in Andalusia, Spain. The Rock of Gibraltar is the only landmark of the region. At its foot is the densely-populated city area, home to almost 30,000 Gibraltarians and other nationalities.

It ranks at 241 in the list of the world’s 249 countries and dependencies by land area – smaller than the Isle of Man (193), Andorra (195), Malta (207), Lichtenstein (219), Jersey (223), Guernsey (226), San Marino (227), but slightly larger than the two smallest, Monaco (248), which is the smallest country with a coastline and the smallest UN member state, and the Vatican City (249), which is listed as the smallest country in the world.

When you count the population, Gibraltar ranks at 221 out of 243, with more inhabitants than the Vatican City, but fewer than any of the other European microstates I’ve named.

To draw comparisons with places in Ireland and England, Gibraltar has a smaller population than, say, Dun Laoghaire, and a smaller land area than the borough of Kilkenny; it has a smaller population than Lichfield, and is less than half the size. Calling it a microstate might be too much of a compliment.

Gibraltar has been a British possession since 1704, when an Anglo-Dutch force captured it from Spain during the War of the Spanish Succession. At the time, Britain was fighting on behalf of the Habsburg pretender to the Spanish throne, and it has clung onto this tiny rock ever since. Legally, the British claim to Gibraltar was secured in 1713, when the Treaty of Utrecht ceded this tiny enclave to Britain “in perpetuity.”

It became an important British naval base, but today the economy is based largely on tourism, online gambling, questionable financial services, and shipping.

A bobby on the beat on the streets of Gibraltar (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Everywhere there are red pillar boxes, the red telephone boxes that are disappearing rapidly from the streets of England, English pubs and bars offering Sunday carveries, and English high street shops and brands, including Marks and Spencer, NatWest, Zara and BHS.

We visited the Anglican Cathedral, Holy Trinity, on Cathedral Square, the King’s Chapel, beside the Convent, which is the Governor’s Official Residence, watched the changing of the guard, peered into Trafalgar Cemetery, and took the cable car to the top of the Rock to see the Barbary apes and gaze across the Straits of Gibraltar to the nearby coastline of Morocco.

The Barbary Apes ... linked with legends about the continuing British presence in Gibraltar (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

The sovereignty of Gibraltar is a major point of contention in Anglo-Spanish relations, as the residents found earlier this year when Spain reasserted its claims to this rocky outcrop that no-one else seems to bother about. Time and again, the people of Gibraltar have voted against proposals for Spanish sovereignty and they now govern their own affairs, although some powers, such as military policy and foreign relations, remain the responsibility of Whitehall.

Under the British Nationality Act (1981), the people of Gibraltar have full British citizenship, although they have their own Governor, parliament and elected government.

Gibraltar has also been recognised as part of the European Union since 1973, as a dependent territory of the United Kingdom. After a 10-year campaign, voters there have been able to vote in elections for the European Parliament since 2004 – as part of the South West England constituency.

It might be easy to understand Spanish ire in this situation and to draw comparisons with the gradual reintegration of Hong Kong with China and the process of decolonisation.

On the other hand, I was reminded that Spanish claims are one-sided: apart from the Canary Islands, Spain holds on to Ceuta and Melilla, two autonomous cities in North Africa that are an integral part of Spanish territory although they are surrounded by the Moroccan mainland. These are well-known, and travel agents along the Costa del Sol offer day trips to these two outposts.

What seems to be less well-known is that Spain also has a number of other minor territories in Morocco that it classifies as plazas de soberanía or sovereign territories: the Islas Alhucemas includes a small peninsula and two tiny islands; Islas Chafarinas are three tiny islands; there is the tiny territory of Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera; and there is Isla Perejil, a small uninhabited islet close to Ceuta.

All these are guarded by Spanish military garrisons and administered directly by the Spanish central government. Their currency is the Euro and, just like Ceuta and Melilla, they are an integral part of Spain, and so – like Gibraltar – they are also part of the European Union, although they are not part of NATO.

On our way back from Gibraltar late yesterday, we had to take everything off the bus, and walk through the Spanish police and customs. Did they want us to feel uncomfortable after just one day’s visit to this outcrop?

Franco staged his fascist invasion of Spain in 1936 from Cueta, and a generation later sealed off the tiny strip of border that links Gibraltar and Spain. It did not reopen until the 1980s when Spain joined the EU.

Gibraltar symbolised resistance to the Nazis during World War II. Later, in the post-war years it came to symbolise a protest against Franco’s Fascism. It would be a crying shame if this little corner of England became a symbol for UKIP and the looney right in next month’s European elections.

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