It wasn’t exactly the battle of the Falkland Islands all over again, but a fracas on board an aircraft this week between Spaniards and Britons over the sovereignty of a barren rock far from the UK served as a reminder of the extent to which British passions can be ignited by any threat to one of the few remaining outposts of its once formidable empire.
The verbal skirmish – reportedly between two British citizens from Gibraltar and Spaniards travelling on the same easyJet flight to Gatwick Airport in the UK – also highlighted just how precarious and unpredictable post-Brexit Britain’s relations are likely to be with its spurned former European partners.
The fuse was lit last week by a 35-word section in the document setting out the broad strokes of the European Union’s plans for negotiations over the UK’s withdrawal. After the UK left the union, it read, “no agreement between the EU and the United Kingdom may apply to the territory of Gibraltar without … agreement between the Kingdom of Spain and the United Kingdom”.
It was an unexpected clause that immediately raised hackles in Britain and Gibraltar, where it was interpreted as a threat to the sovereignty of the small chunk of the Spanish mainland Britain has controlled for more than 300 years. Gibraltar, said chief minister Fabian Picardo, was “not a bargaining chip … [it] belongs to the Gibraltarians and we want to stay British”. Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, was “behaving like a cuckolded husband who is taking it out on the children”.
Former British Conservative leader Lord Howard even drew parallels between Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands, recaptured by a British task force in 1982 after a brief occupation by Argentina.
“Thirty-five years ago this week, another woman prime minister sent a task force halfway across the world to defend the freedom of another small group of British people against another Spanish-speaking country,” Lord Howard said.
The current British prime minister, he added, would “show the same resolve in standing by the people of Gibraltar”.
Spain, meanwhile, seems to be in the mood to enjoy, and perhaps exploit, Britain’s discomfort over one of the unforeseen consequences of Brexit. On Sunday, the country’s foreign minister said his country would welcome an anti-Brexit Scotland into the EU fold should it vote for independence from the UK. And then, as if determined to taunt the British lion directly, on Tuesday, a Spanish warship sailed provocatively into Gibraltar’s territorial waters, prompting a swift ejection by the Royal Navy.
As one TV commentator noted, the Brexit negotiations hadn’t even begun, and yet “they’ve already been waylaid by a tiny rock on the Mediterranean. Not the best start.”
Tiny it may be – at just 6.8 square kilometres, Gibraltar is barely larger than Abu Dhabi’s Reem Island, not to mention overcrowded and devoid of natural water sources. But over the centuries that tiny rock, barely 20km from the Moroccan coast at the mouth of the Mediterranean, has had a strategic significance out of all proportion to its size.
Over the centuries occupiers have come and gone, from the last of the Neanderthals – in 2006, the discovery of ancient tools in a cave suggested the pre-human sub-species had survived there for far longer than previously thought – to the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals and the once-mighty Germanic Visigoths.
None, however, held on to Gibraltar as long as the Muslims, who, from the Damascus-based Umayyad Caliphate, landed at Gibraltar in 711, evicted the Visigoths and went on to seize almost the entire Iberian peninsula. The name Gibraltar is believed to be derived from the Arabic name for the rock, Jabal Tariq, named after the Umayyad general Tariq ibn Ziyad.
It would be another 780 years before the Moors were ejected from what is today Spain, the Reconquista ending a lengthy Muslim occupation of Gibraltar that dwarfs Britain’s mere three centuries of possession.
Gibraltar fell into British hands in 1704, two years into the long and bloody War of the Spanish Succession, and was formally handed over by Spain, “in perpetuity”, as part of the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713.
At the time, and for succeeding centuries, Gibraltar’s strategic importance as the gateway to the Mediterranean was vital to Britain and its burgeoning empire. In the 19th century it played a series of pivotal roles in the Napoleonic and Crimean Wars. Its importance as a controlling valve on world trade was only enhanced by the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Then, in the Second World War, it was vital in the battle for North Africa, the evacuation of the civilian population enabling Gibraltar to be used as a base for Allied ships and aircraft.
But since then, although Britain maintains a garrison of ships and soldiers on the Rock, generating a healthy income for local bars and restaurants, Gibraltar’s strategic relevance has declined, along with the UK’s role in the world. With its raison d’être as a military base controlling access to and British interests in the Mediterranean long expired, it retains little more than symbolic importance for the British.
Rather like the Falklands, Gibraltar plays almost no part in the day-to-day life of Britain or the British. Indeed, few in the UK could point to its precise position on a map and rarely does Gibraltar elbow its way onto the news agenda in the home nation. One notable exception was in 1988, when three Provisional IRA terrorists suspected of planning to bomb British troops were shot dead in Gibraltar by an undercover SAS unit.
Like the Falklands, one of 14 British Overseas Territories – the remnants of an imploded empire, scattered like tiny pieces of shrapnel across the map of the world – Gibraltar has its own government, independent from British interference in all things but defence and foreign relations, while Britain enjoys none of the financial benefits of a favourable but profitable tax regime that attracts a dubious mix of offshore bankers and operators of online gambling sites.
Nevertheless, although the 30,000 inhabitants of Gibraltar call themselves Llanitos and are largely bilingual, they hold British passports and citizenship, regard themselves as faithful loyal subjects of the monarchy and are determined to remain British – a state of affairs confirmed overwhelmingly by two referendums, most recently in 2002, when 98.97 per cent of the 18,176 voters rejected a suggestion that sovereignty should be shared with the Spanish.
Yet the fact that last year they voted overwhelmingly against leaving the EU will almost certainly test loyalties and complicate matters during the forthcoming Brexit negotiations – Spain last year renewed its call for joint sovereignty, directly after Britain’s EU referendum.
There is one section of the population of Gibraltar whose views are not known – the “Rock Apes”. Actually Barbary macaques – the only wild monkeys to be found in Europe and thought to have been brought to the Rock from Morocco by the Muslims – the longevity of their territorial claim outweighs that of the British and Spanish combined.
Their presence plays a key part in Britain’s emotional attachment to its arid rock – legend has it that if the macaques ever leave, so will the British.
As Britain and its former European partners square up for the next two years of gloves-off negotiations, it is doubtless a legend that the Gibraltarians, and the Spanish, will be contemplating with some interest.