The Rock Gets Rolled: A Letter from Gibraltar

The Rock Gets Rolled: A Letter from Gibraltar

Mini Teaser: Tony Blair and company seem hell-bent on caving in to Spain over Gibraltar. Unfortunately for Blair, Gibraltarians have other ideas.

by Author(s): Joe Garcia

ONE FOOT separates Gibraltar from Spain, that being the distance between the Spanish and the British frontier gates. You show your passport to the Spanish border guard and then, before you pass through, to the British guard as well. You are now leaving the Spanish town of La Linea to step upon the world's biggest pebble, the majestic Rock of Gibraltar, rising almost perpendicularly from sea level to some 1,400 feet at its highest point. This limestone rock of Jurassic age is the lasting symbol of British imperialism, and of injured Spanish pride at having lost it to the British 300 years ago. (It is also the symbol of The Prudential Insurance Company of America, of Newark, NJ; none of us here, truth to tell, has ever quite figured out what to make of that.)

Now, as the saying goes, you can feel as safe as the Rock of Gibraltar, but you begin to wonder as the London-like red double-decker bus begins its journey on the only road into downtown Gibraltar--which incredibly cuts across the airfield runway. The barrier is down and the jetliner from London roars as its tires grip onto an airstrip resembling an oversized aircraft carrier. Beyond Winston Churchill Avenue and an old Moorish castle is the town, which nestles on the western slopes, rising from the one-time busy naval harbor to what is now essentially a commercial and cruise ship terminal. Gibraltar is populated by 30,000 people who call it their homeland, their country.

This tiny outpost of empire is the last remaining colony in Europe, as its claimant, Spain, likes to say. It occupies just under three square miles of the Iberian peninsula, but within its minuscule dimensions it squeezes two cathedrals, four synagogues, two mosques and a Hindu temple. There are 19 banks and nearly as many companies as there are people. About 300 apes roam in the wild, as well. The homegrown Royal Gibraltar Regiment is the Rock's largest military unit; its police force is over 200-strong and is the second oldest in Britain and the Commonwealth. Gibraltar is the leading bunkering port in the Western Mediterranean and, of course, it commands the strategic Strait of Gibraltar, which separates Europe from Africa.

Just what is so important about this shining stone in the British Crown, whose intriguing past gives credence to the notion that fact can be stranger (and also more irritating) than fiction? A case can be made that its importance lies mostly in the realm of military history. But that is not how the people of Gibraltar see things today, as the British government seeks to deal away their sovereign identity and sense of repose to Spain, for equities having to do with the internal diplomacy of the European Union. Gibraltar is not about grand strategy and military history anymore; as its homeborn see it, it is about integrity about right and wrong. It is less dramatic than sieges, wars and competitive espionage, yes; does that also make it less important?

Strait and Narrow

IT ALL STARTED when a Moorish leader conquered the place in 711 C.E. and gave his name to it: Gebel Tarik, the mountain of Tarik Battles raged, and the land changed hands on numerous occasions between the Moors and the Spanish, until 1704 when an Anglo-Dutch fleet conquered it. Under the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 the Spanish Crown formally ceded sovereignty "in perpetuity" to the British Crown, but the Spanish were not particularly good to their word. Of the many sieges they staged over the years, pride of place goes to The Great Siege of 1779, which lasted three years, seven months and twelve days. The fortress, outnumbered four-to-one, was attacked with all manner of Spanish contraptions, including floating batteries, which gave the British the idea of setting them ablaze by firing red-hot cannon balls from vantage points along Gibraltar's rocky promontory. After 200,000 shots rained down, the Spanish backed off, and there followed a long period of peace. British Gibraltar became an impregnable fortress.

Through war and peace, the native Gibraltarians emerged. "In this small corner of the world there lives today a people of amazingly mixed stock who represent a fusion of very many races ... basically Genoese, but with much inter-marriage between Spaniards, Portuguese, Minorcans, Italians, persons from the British Isles, Maltese, Jews and many races of Northern Europe", wrote then-British Governor and Commander-in-Chief, General Sir Kenneth Anderson in 1950. Under British protection, this eclectically composed population increased by leaps and bounds.

As it did, the British had the penchant of dividing the population into as many classes as they could think of: By 1777, in the 3,000-plus population, residents were known as "British Blood Native Protestant" and "British Blood Non-Native Protestant." There were also "Alien Blood Native Roman Catholics" and a wide range of combinations. By the next century the classifications had been simplified to "British from Britain", "British from Gibraltar" and "Aliens." (Nowadays, we have "Gibraltarians", "Other British" and "Non British.") With no wars to fight, life must have been something of a bore, so the British decided in 1830 that their battle-scarred fortress would henceforth become a Crown Colony (which, unknown at the time, was to provoke a war of words with the Spanish in years to come, for Gibraltar ended up being listed at the United Nations as a colony to be decolonized). So it remained in relative peace for over a century, serving as sentry post for the British Navy over the strait and narrow separating Europe from North Africa.

World War II then brought great change and sacrifice. Military considerations helped make Gibraltar into a city-within-a-city, with tunnels being hewn inside the Rock. A self-contained, underground fortress emerged, with its own power and water supplies, even a hospital. Testimony to the scale of the operation is that there are 35 miles of subterranean roads--more roads inside than outside the Rock. As the weekly dances for military men and women proceeded, the British secret agent Donald Darling recalled that "alarming explosions from within the bowels of the Rock, where Canadian tunnelers worked day and night, interrupted the syncopation of 'The Big Noise from Winetka' or the 'Anniversary Waltz.'" Meanwhile, the lorries, piled high with stones blasted out by the tunnelers, were driven downhill toward the airfield, to be used for its extension into the (still) disputed waters of the bay.

The war effort led to Britain's half of the narrow, low-lying isthmus that links the Rock to mainland Spain being used initially as an emergency landing ground. The then-Governor recalled having received a proposal: "I propose, with Your Excellency's concurrence, to issue an order warning pilots that, should a forced landing be necessary, they are to bear in mind that there may be men working here or in the firing trenches, that cattle may be grazing and people exercising horses." These were the kind of impediments General Eisenhower could do without as his aircraft touched down on Gibraltar in November 1942. He was to command Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa: the first major Anglo-American amphibious campaign and a turning point in the struggle against Nazi Germany. Eisenhower was installed in what the British called "an office in the maritime headquarters", but which his own aides described as a "cramped, damp, 8-by-S foot cubbyhole" deep inside the Rock, and accessible only through a tunnel as dark as night.

German agents spied relentlessly on the Allied command in Gibraltar through powerful telescopes from the Spanish port of Algeciras just five miles across the bay. The reason was clear: more than 400 aircraft lay crammed wingtip to wingtip on the airstrip, and warships kept coming in and out. But the Germans were deceived into thinking that the military build-up was intended to relieve besieged Malta, or to prepare a limited landing behind Rommel in Libya. Even before Eisenhower's arrival, however, Gibraltar's importance to the Allied cause had not escaped Hitler's attention. As early as 1940, Hitler had issued Directive No. 18, code-named "Operation Felix"--the German plan to invade the Iberian peninsula, capture Gibraltar and drive the British out of the Western Mediterranean. Hitler was offering the Spanish dictator, General Francisco Franco, the prize of a Spanish Gibraltar, but Spain's demands escalated and the plan was not activated. Speaking in Nuremberg prison, Hermann Goering said that the most damaging mistake to German fortunes was Hitler's failure to march through Spain, with or without Franco's assent, "capture Gibraltar and spill into Africa.... [I]t would have altered the whole course of the war."1 In February 1945, Hitler admitted: "... we ought to have attacked Gibraltar in the summer of 1940." Indeed, such an attack, as Churchill himself put it at the time, would have been extremely dangerous.2

The exigencies of war led to the entire population, except able-bodied men, being evacuated "for their safety" to places such as bombed-out London. Those who stayed behind initiated vociferous campaigns calling for the repatriation of their loved ones; when they returned after the war they did so all the wiser, having experienced the wider world "out there." As the population bulged after V-E Day, there were more people about to make their weight felt in a new fight for civil and political liberties. Then, suddenly it seemed, the colonial masters allowed the emergence of political parties, workers' unions and the publication of newspapers without a license from the military governor. The Gibraltarians' political emancipation was soon crowned by the visit of the Duke of Edinburgh in 1950 to inaugurate the Gibraltar legislature, the forerunner of today's 17-seat parliament.

Whether this trip irritated General Franco is not a matter of clear public record, but the visit of the recently enthroned Queen Elizabeth II, just four years later, certainly did. By the mid-1960s, Franco had explicitly renewed Spain's quest for Gibraltar. His annexation plan received support at the UN General Assembly from the Soviet bloc, whose leaders in Moscow saw it as an opportunity to weaken the British presence in the Mediterranean and to roil NATO cohesion. In 1968, the Spanish government sealed the land frontier, suspended maritime links and cut telephone communications. Except for a daily air link with London and a ferry service across the Strait to Tangier, Gibraltar was isolated. Thus did a modern siege of Gibraltar incarcerate the Gibraltarians in their small rock of a homeland.

Although Franco insisted that Gibraltar was not worth a war, the British took no chances. The British chiefs of staff believed that Spanish military aims could range from sabotage in the airfield area to the occupation of the whole colony, and they prepared countermeasures in meticulous detail. The level and manner of British response would have depended on the action taken by the Spaniards, but if this was to occupy the whole of Gibraltar, the British planned to attack Spanish forces on Spanish soil, waters and airspace. The situation was so potentially explosive that during a visit to London by President Nixon in February 1969, the British appealed to him to dissuade Franco from engaging in military action. The British recognized the reluctance of the U.S. administration to involve itself in Anglo-Spanish problems on account of the American bases agreement with Spain, but they appealed to Nixon to "do what you can to persuade the Spaniards to adopt a policy that can get us out of our present deadlock, which is in the interest of neither country." Whatever messages were passed, Franco decided not to be rash.

Whose Gibraltar?

IN FEBRUARY 1985, with Franco gone and democracy restored in Spain, the blockade was lifted. However, much to the chagrin of Madrid, the British had since devolved powers to the Gibraltarians, making the Rock self-governing in internal affairs, with Britain largely responsible only for foreign affairs, defense and internal security. Any transfer of sovereignty to Spain would have to be sanctioned by the Gibraltarians themselves, as stated in the British assurance in the preamble to the 1969 Gibraltar Constitution. That would seem to render moot the fact that the Treaty of Utrecht came with the proviso that Gibraltar would revert to Spain should Britain ever abrogate the treaty. Gibraltarians have held for years that the Rock is not Spain's to claim or Britain's to give away--echoing a phrase coined by a former British Governor, General Sir William Jackson. "Utrecht is not worth the paper on which it was written", chorus all five of the political parties here, meaning that such an archaic document cannot deny them the right to self-determination. Anyway, they tell you, a number of sieges by the Spanish broke the treaty, and it is so antiquated that, for example, it prohibits Jews from living here--even though many Jews who do live here can trace their ancestry back several centuries! (A prominent Jew, the late Sir Joshua Hassan, was the elected leader for forty years in what is a predominantly Roman Catholic community. In recent demonstrations, his nephew Solomon Levy, an estate agent, has been parading a placard that reads: "I was born British and I want to die British." He warns: "If Gibraltar were to become Spanish we would start a clandestine resistance movement.")

The assurance inscribed in the Gibraltar Constitution has now become a matter of urgent practical interest. At London's behest, Britain and Spain initiated serious negotiations in July 2001 seeking to overcome all their centuries-long differences over the Rock. The proposed deal includes the retention by the Gibraltarians of British citizenship, respect for their British way of life and greater self-government, but also some yet-to-be-specified form of joint sovereignty with Spain. Gibraltarians would have the final say, promised Prime Minister Tony Blair. Said Gibraltar's opposition leader, Joe Bossano, British Foreign Minister Jack Straw has told us that "this 'skeleton' will be 'fleshed out' by Gibraltarian participation in subsequent negotiations."

But Bossano demurs. "Our position", he said, "is that Britain has no right to enter into such arrangements to make concessions on sovereignty." In this he is as one with the Gibraltar chief minister, Peter Caruana, who has repeatedly accused the British Foreign Office of betrayal. "It is", he said, "a violation of Gibraltar's political rights for the Foreign Office to do deals above our heads which stay on the table even if we reject them in referendum. The UK parliament is opposed to this, as is British public opinion." This is true. "Sovereignty shared is sovereignty surrendered", said Michael Ancram, the Conservative Party's foreign affairs spokesman; and a Gibraltar government advertising campaign in the British press elicited nearly 400,000 messages of support. Not surprisingly, then, Gibraltarians gave Mr. Straw a noteworthy reception when he visited Gibraltar on May 3; he was "hailed" as a traitor by rowdy British flag-waving protestors.

To put not too fine a point on it, Gibraltarians are furious that Britain has been negotiating the thorny issue of sovereignty with Spain in the full knowledge that the Gibraltarians are against it. Virtually the whole population have taken part in pro-British demonstrations to make the point as visible as possible, and to support the October 2001 "Declaration of Unity" (by past and present members of the Gibraltar House of Assembly) which stated, inter alia: "The people of Gibraltar will never, ever, compromise or give up our inalienable right to self-determination and our sovereignty."

Of course, the Spanish government does not agree with any of this. The question of sovereignty is a matter for Britain and Spain only, said Josep Pique before being replaced as Spanish foreign minister in a cabinet reshuffle in July. It is, as Madrid sees it, a matter of de-colonization and Spain's territorial integrity. That argument, however, may well have encouraged the Moroccan government to apply similar principles to two Spanish enclaves on its coast, Ceuta and Melilla (and the Canary Islands might be Morocco's ultimate objective, particularly if the prospect of oil wealth arises). On July 11, Morocco occupied a very small, uninhabited rock near Ceuta--called Leila ("night") by the Moroccans and Perejil ("parsley") by the Spanish. "The Moroccans are perhaps watching what Britain and Spain are doing about Gibraltar", the British Ambassador in Madrid, Peter Torry, said on Spanish radio, just as U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was brokering a temporary solution after Spain mobilized a small armada to bloodlessly expel the Moroccans.

Spain's motives for wanting to recover Gibraltar are obvious. But why did Britain's Labor government request negotiations in the first place, and why does it persist with them in face of virtually unanimous opposition in Gibraltar? Everyone in Gibraltar agrees that Britain wants to strike a deal with Spain because London thinks that its interests in the European Union are best served by a closer relationship with Madrid--and the Gibraltar dispute stands in the way. The Spaniards, forever clamoring for the Rock's return but without any real expectation of being taken seriously, could not believe their luck when British officials suggested to them a sovereignty deal over Gibraltar in return for an Anglo-Spanish alliance to counter the dominant Franco-German axis in the European Union. (The plot thickened when, in March, the EU offered Gibraltar what has been generally described as a "bribe" of [pounds sterling]35 million as an inducement not to fuss if a deal is struck; "Gibraltar is not for sale", answered Mr. Caruana.) In a UK parliamentary debate in June, the British Labor governments Minister for Europe, Peter Hain, made London's motive plain enough: "Our alliance with Spain in Europe is helping us to deliver a European Union of strong nations . . . however, that relationship remains constrained by the Gibraltar dispute.... [W]e must fix the issue."

Given such a rationale, most observers believed that British capitulation to Spain would not take long. Such expectations, however, have not been realized. After Blair and the Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar met in London in May, they let it be known that "difficulties" had arisen. The difficulties center on three points: Spanish insistence that the door of joint sovereignty should be left open, leading possibly to full Spanish sovereignty in the future; the question of Spain's involvement in a British military base; and Spain's concern about a referendum being held in Gibraltar. (Madrid fears that a referendum could be interpreted as an act of self-determination and lead separatists in the Basque region to demand one for themselves.) Seeing the British in such a pliant mood, the Spanish seem to have overreached.

That difficulties have arisen tend to cheer the Gibraltarians, but they remain active in pressing their case. For example, assurances by Foreign Office officials that, in any deal, Britain would retain complete operational control of the base, have not mollified critics. Indeed, a letter sent by the UK defense secretary Geoff Hoon to Mr. Straw, subsequently leaked to the British media, suggested that British strategic interests were being put at risk by the planned deal, that there was "growing concern among both British and American Armed Forces that any deal could damage the operational capability of the Rock's naval base and military airfield." The reason is that were the base to be treated like a U.S. base in Spain, as the Spanish government favors, questions asked would have to be answered, thus impairing the absolute freedom of maneuver now enjoyed by the British and American militaries in a community that has grown up in the shadow of a fortress and sees the military as a way of life. An example: When a U.S. warship arrived at Gibraltar to mark the Fourth of July celebrations this year, it pleased Gibraltarians; but the Spanish side viewed the visit antagonistically, with charges aired that it carried nuclear armaments and hence was a clear and present danger to Spain.

The stakes, then, are not trivial. While the great British naval base, capable of handling repairs to warships as big as aircraft carriers, is no longer, and while defense spending has dwindled over the last thirty years from representing 70 percent of the local economy to a mere 7 percent, around 150 British warships have called at Gibraltar since April 1998. There is a staging post for the Royal Air Force, which is currently undertaking an [pounds sterling]8 million refurbishment of the airfield. About one hundred training exercises take place annually, including submarine exercises in the deep waters around the Rock. The use of nuclear berthing facilities is a key activity, as well. The Rock also continues to be the "ears and eyes" of the British--and by extension of the Americans--in an area of the world where potential trouble spots abound. The United States has communications interests here, and the Rock is used by U.S. Marines for training. (Strong Anglo-American influence in the Strait is perhaps why Al-Qaeda chose it as a terrorist target, before timely arrests this past summer in Morocco apparently foiled their plans.) American interests are quietly looked after by a solitary U.S. liaison officer, whose operational center lies deep inside a tunnel not far from where General Eisenhower commanded Operation Torch. The status of the Rock still matters, not just to the people of Gibraltar, but to the United States, as well.

IS THERE LIGHT at the end of the diplomatic tunnel for this centuries-old Anglo-Spanish confrontation? Proposals by a former chief minister, Sir Robert Peliza, to fully integrate Gibraltar with Britain were rejected by the British Government in the 1970s. The concept of Gibraltar becoming a "Royal City State within the European Union was promoted in 1992 by the Gibraltar Liberal Party but without success. Now, a thorough revision of the Constitution has been undertaken by an all-party committee of the mini- parliament here to remove the remaining vestiges of colonialism and gain greater self-government within the British umbrella. But Gibraltarians do not want to boot the British off the Rock and, indeed, any proposed constitutional change will be put to London.

Meanwhile, as Britain and Spain persevere with their talks over joint sovereignty for Gibraltar, Mr. Caruana has opined that the Andorra model may be the sort of solution Gibraltarians could support. He says this not because he wants to be a prince, but because the Principality of Andorra, sandwiched between France and Spain high up in the Pyrenees (those other rocks), "represents full self-determination for the people of Andorra, with sovereignty vested in its people." He added: "Andorra is in no sense a part of Spain nor of Spanish soyereignty. It is an autonomous territory." So what is the problem? "Unfortunately, the modern Andorra model is unacceptable to Spain", Mr. Caruana told me in his Convent Place office. Madrid does not accept self-determination or real autonomy for Gibraltar.

Nonetheless, the Gibraltar government has decided to go it alone and organize an internationally-supervised referendum in late October. It is understood as a pre-emptive strike against the looming Anglo-Spanish deal "to make Gibraltar's view on joint or any Spanish sovereignty absolutely clear", as Mr. Caruana puts it. Madrid has condemned the Rock's proposed referendum, and so has London. So Gibraltar and its people face yet another siege--only this time the British government is not standing like a rock on their behalf. It rather seems reduced to gravel.

1 Quoted in Sir Ivone Kirkpatrick, The Inner Circle (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1959), pp. 195-6.

2 Winston Churchill, Their Finest Hour (New York Houghton Mifflin, 1949), pp. 530, 607.

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