Gibraltar: The Rock refuses to roll


HMS Westminster arrived in Gibraltar on Monday.


Pablo Blazquez Dominguez

GlobalPost senior correspondent Paul Ames traveled to Gibraltar to investigate how the standoff is affecting people on both sides of the border. Read his report from the Spanish city of La Linea de la Concepcion here.

GIBRALTAR — Ask most Gibraltarians whether their tiny strip of land should be returned to Spain and you get a look of pain and disbelief that anyone would raise such question.

"It's exactly the same as telling people living in Florida that Spain wants that back," says Eugene Howe as he waits for a bus under a marble monument to British soldiers who died World War I.

Spain ceded Gibraltar to the British crown in perpetuity more than a century before it sold Florida to the United States in 1818, he points out. "Maybe one day they'll give back the money and demand Florida.”

Taxi driver Arthur Cardozo waits for fares just off Main Street, with its tea rooms, fish-and-chip shops and pubs serving pints of London Pride ale. "This has been British for the last 300 years,” he says. “We are British citizens and that's that.”

You get the picture. The opinions are especially strident these days, however, because after years of relative calm, the 300-year dispute between Britain and Spain over ownership of this rocky promontory jutting dramatically into the Mediterranean Sea is again flaring up.

A British warship arrived in Gibraltar on Monday, a day after Spanish fishermen confronted British police boats. They were protesting the action that prompted the standoff earlier this month — the Gibraltarian authorities' decision to create an artificial reef by sinking concrete blocks off the coast.

Spain says they are disrupting Spanish fishing boats — and that it’s concerned about smuggling and the environmental risks of Gibraltar's lucrative maritime refueling business. Spanish police have imposed new controls on the frontier, causing delays of up to seven hours for motorists and bringing misery for thousands who work or trade across the border.

The European Commission weighed in on Monday, saying that it would send inspectors to Gibraltar and warning Madrid not to escalate tensions by charging those crossing into the territory.

Gibraltarians say Spain has no jurisdiction over their waters. They — and some Spaniards — suggest the dispute’s timing has more to do with efforts by the Spanish government to distract attention from the dire state of the economy on top of corruption allegations against Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and other senior members of his conservative People's Party.

Whatever the reason, the clampdown has prompted a surge of patriotic fever among Gibraltarians, conjuring up the British bulldog spirit of similar sieges in the past.

Apartment blocks along Winston Churchill Avenue are bedecked with Union Jack flags and Gibraltar’s own red-and-white banner emblazoned with the image of a mighty castle.

"We're Ready for the Armada!" a Gibraltar Chronicle headline announced last week over a picture of Maroua Kharbouch, Miss Gibraltar 2013, dressed as a redcoat and posing with a Victorian-era cannon.

Gibraltar's Chief Minister Fabian Picardo has accused the Spanish government of behaving like North Korea and warned that the strong-arm tactics on the border will be self-defeating.

"The United Kingdom and Gibraltar are very clear in our measured and reasoned responses to the continuing provocations," he said in a statement last week. "With reason and truth on our side, and hard work, we will prevail."

That kind of talk stretches back to the early 18th century.

Last April, Gibraltar celebrated the 300th anniversary of the Treaty of Utrecht, which ceded the territory to Britain nine years after British and Dutch troops seized it during the War of Spanish Succession.

Recognizing its strategic position at the entrance to the Mediterranean, the British turned the 1,400-foot high Rock of Gibraltar into a supposedly impregnable fortress. It protected a base for the Royal Navy that proved vital in conflicts ranging from the fight against Napoleon to World War II.

The colony became a melting pot for a diverse population from across the Mediterranean and the British empire.

Stevedores from Genoa joined sailors from the Spanish island of Minorca and construction workers from Portugal and Malta. Sephardic Jews also made Gibraltar their base at time when they still risked death at the hands of the Spanish inquisition.

Spaniards came from over the border and Moroccans crossed the straits from the African coast just 12 miles away to mingle with London merchants and Indian traders.

Squeezed together on a territory roughly twice the size of New York's Central Park, those disparate groups blended to form a unique culture. Many speak the Llanito language, which mixes Spanish and English.

Politically, however, the 30,000 Gibraltarians remain fiercely British.

In a 2002 referendum, 98.48 percent voted against a proposed shared-sovereignty deal negotiated by the governments in London and Madrid.

That was just slightly down from the 99.64 percent who voted against a 1967 plan to gain self-governance under a Spanish flag.

"Will Gibraltar every become Spanish? No, no, no," says Charles, a British dentist who has lived on the Rock for 30 years. He declined to give his full name for fear of facing harassment from Spanish officials at the border.

"The Spanish just keep battering and battering away at them, but the Gibraltarians are a very resilient people,” he adds over a pint at the Trafalgar pub. “They will just stay here and resist."

The pub is named for the 1805 British naval victory over the French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar Bay a few miles down the coast. It overlooks leafy cemetery containing the graves of British seamen killed in the battle.

The graveyard is one of countless reminders of Gibraltar's military ties to Britain scattered across the territory. There are cannons captured from the Russians during the Crimean war, mighty stone bastions that helped resist attacks by French and Spanish troops allied with George Washington's rebels during the American Revolution, and a World War I "cross of sacrifice" dedicated to "those who died for the Empire."

However, the deep attachment Gibraltarians feel for Britain isn’t always reciprocated.

"These relics of empire pay hardly any UK tax — but when the neighbors cut up nasty, they demand the British protect them," British columnist Simon Jenkins wrote in The Guardian last week. Jenkins argued it was time for this "detritus of empire" to be "dismantled."

With Gibraltar's strategic importance to Britain no longer what it once was, many in London share Spain's unease about the enclave's reputation as an offshore tax haven, online gambling center and hub for smuggling.

Nevertheless, Prime Minister David Cameron has vowed to support the Gibraltarians in their dispute with Spain.

He's lodged a complaint at the European Union claiming Madrid's "disproportionate" border controls infringe EU laws. More dramatically, Britain has dispatched a flotilla of warships that arrived at Gibraltar on Monday.

The departure of the naval task force of three ships raised uneasy parallels with the 1982 Falklands War, when Britain fought Argentina for control of another remnant of empire.

Gibraltar is different. The naval mission is for long-planned exercises and at least one of the ships will be calling in at a Spanish naval base as a courtesy call on a NATO ally.

Still, the Falkland Islands analogy hasn’t been lost on Spain. Its hawkish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo is considering a joint complaint with Argentina at the United Nations against British colonialism.

Despite the diplomatic bluster, Spain has few tools to prize Gibraltar away from Britain and Gibraltarians say the current pressure will only reinforce their determination to resist any talk of a sovereignty compromise.

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Popular legend has it that that British rule will end when Gibraltar's barbary macaques — Europe's only wild primate population — quit The Rock.

More than 300 of the monkeys currently roam Gibraltar's rocky heights, making frequent forays into town to wander among the tea rooms, scarlet telephone boxes and helmeted bobbies.

They show no signs of wanting to leave.