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  • JTMS Intern Darren Agcaoili

From the Sea to the Rock: Navigating the Gibraltar Dispute

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Photo provided by pixabay.com


Gibraltar is a colony of the UK also known as the Crown Colony Gibraltar. It is also a place of contention between the UK and Spain although it goes back to a treaty with France in the 1700s. The territory has created its own constitution on different occasions but in 2006 it established wording that it was a non-colony of the UK. With this writing, Gibraltar had set up its own democratic institutions and other entities needed to run its own government. In UK White Papers, they established their stance that they will allow Gibraltar’s self-determination. This would be solving a problem for the UK in which the UN stated that the Gibraltar needs to be decolonized.[i] Spain has raised concerns over this as the UK and Gibraltar had not discussed this decolonization with them prior to these statements. Spain argues that they did not give sovereignty over Gibraltar but gave Great Britain something akin to possession.[ii] Gibraltar is stuck in between this territory dispute of two countries much larger than itself. With Brexit, this issue has been brought to the forefront again. Gibraltarians want to be a part of the UK, but they also wanted to stay in the EU. Spain has rights to Gibraltar which they argue is based off the original and revisional treaties, the UN has called for decolonization, and the EU has called for a bilateral agreement regarding the territory. To figure out why the UK and Spain are disputing over Gibraltar, we have to explore what the territory is.


Gibraltar is bordered to Spain and opposite of Morocco. The territory itself is regularly referred to as “The Rock”, due to a large limestone ridge that runs through most of the colony.[iii] From the 2020 census, Gibraltar is home to 34,003 people with 6.8 square kilometers of space.[iv] With a start of 50 volunteers in 1939 as a small defense force for Gibraltar, they now have around 400 personnel stationed.[v] The Rock is seen as a safe place and is home to one of the Pillars of Hercules. The Spanish autonomous city of Ceuta opposite of Gibraltar make up the pillars that are the natural gateway into the Mediterranean Sea called the Strait of Gibraltar. Until the completion of the Suez Canal in 1869, the Strait of Gibraltar was the only feasible option of getting in and out of the Mediterranean Sea.


Great Britain’s Jurisdiction Over Gibraltar


In 1713, during the War of Spanish Succession, France and the Great Britain signed the Treaty of Utrecht which gave the UK jurisdiction over Gibraltar.[vi] Great Britain at the time had already invaded and controlled Gibraltar in 1704 but the treaty in 1713 made it so Gibraltar was ceded to Great Britain. Since then, it has always been under the British monarchy control and to this day Gibraltar’s Head of State is the British monarch.


Although the Treaty of Utrecht was between the UK and France, Spain was a signatory of the treaty, and they want The Rock back. Although this is a dispute between the UK and Spain, Gibraltarians want to be its own people. In referendums in 1967 and 2002, Gibraltarians voted to stay with the UK and self-determine than to go under Spanish control and work with whatever deal Spain wants to give Gibraltar.[vii] Gibraltarian’s desire to stay under the UK rule or influence can be seen in their voter turnouts for both referendums. In 1967 they saw a 95.8% turnout rate with 99.2% of those voters voting to stay with the UK. In 2002 they saw an 87.9% voter turnout rate with 98.9% of those voters voting to not have a joint governance over Gibraltar between the UK and Spain.[viii] In 2006, Gibraltar voted and passed a new constitution. The new constitution’s wording which referred to Gibraltar as a non-colony of the UK.[ix] With these new terms and the constitution setting up the Gibraltarian government to sustain itself, this is where Spain’s argument against Gibraltar being its own country comes up.


From the UK perspective, it was given full sovereignty over Gibraltar and thus letting Gibraltar decide on how it wants to proceed is allowed. Gibraltar’s constitution allows it more autonomy and the transition into a micro-state. As previously stated the two referendums showed Gibraltarians want to be a part of the UK and not a part of Spain. The UK can see The Rock as a strategic location as it houses a UK and NATO base for the area.[x] As it is the natural entrance into the Mediterranean it is also imperative for NATO forces to have access to such an area. During Brexit, Gibraltar wanted to stay in the EU but as it happened, the UK has left the EU meaning Gibraltar has as well. This is one aspect in which there might be some negotiation troubles between the UK and Gibraltar.[xi] Gibraltar is still listed on the UN Decolonization list but the latest constitution in 2006 uses terms as a non-colony of the UK. This may be solving the problem with the UN in decolonization efforts, but it does not solve the problem with Spain.


The Spanish Point of View


Spain has a different outlook on Gibraltar as it is directly on its border. First, Spain does not recognize the waters around Gibraltar as British or Gibraltarian jurisdiction. Spanish fishing vessels have been crossing into Gibraltarian waters in an increasing fashion since 1997. [vi] In the article Gibraltar: Sovereignty Disputes and Territorial Waters by Gerry O’Reilly it is stated, “Spanish Government stated when it signed the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea on 5 December 1984, we do not recognize any rights or situations in respect of maritime areas of Gibraltar not included in Article X of the Treaty of Utrecht.” Spain claims the only waters the UK has for Gibraltar is the area around the port as stated in the Treaty of Utrecht not based off the UN Law of the Seas.[xii] Then from the Spanish government’s viewpoint, their fisherman are not violating any zone of the UK or Gibraltar. This is also in due part of Spain not recognizing Gibraltar as its own country which will be discussed later.


There are many arguments by the Spanish government on why they want Gibraltar back. One argument is that it is to solidify their territorial integrity as it is bordered with Spain only. Another analysis shows that if Gibraltar were turned over back to Spanish control, Spain would control the entire Strait of Gibraltar which is the only natural entrance into the Mediterranean. As previously mentioned, Spain makes the legal claims that the Treaty of Utrecht did not give Great Britain complete control or sovereignty over Gibraltar but gave them “possession” of it.[xiii] What is meant by “possession” in the treaty as argued by Spain has not been defined in the articles or from the Spanish government and needs further analysis to be further explored.


Spain’s view on Gibraltar has not changed much since the Treaty of Utrecht was drafted in 1713. The argument of possession and not sovereignty over Gibraltar, is the main argument that comes from the Spanish side when dialogue or questions are asked to government officials.[xiv] A second argument by Spain is in the treaty there is a stipulation that Great Britain must give Spain first rights to Gibraltar before the UK can forfeit rights to any other party. Due to the UK allowing Gibraltar to self-determine, Spain argues this is the UK giving up “possession” over The Rock and this is the violation of the treaty.[xv] Another area Spain is arguing about is the Isthmus. Spain states negotiators on both sides discussed the Isthmus and it was left out of the treaty meaning Spain would not allow Britain to have possession over the Isthmus.[xvi] Currently there is an airport at the Isthmus, and it appears for the Spanish point of view, the Isthmus was supposed to be a buffer zone between the two territories/zones and the UK was not given rights to that area. These are the two main arguments Spain has for treaty violations by the UK but there arguments on why Spain is contending with the Gibraltar dispute based off Spain's interpretations of UN Resolutions.


Spain argues for them to control the integrity of their territory overrides Gibraltar’s right to self-determination. UN General Assembly Resolution 1541 establishes a way to test if a territory is a non-self-governing territory. The resolution states that the territory must be geographically separate from the colonial power, and it must be culturally and/or ethnically different.[xvii] With this stipulation, Spain has argued that Gibraltar cannot be given rights to self-determination as it is geographically connected to Spain, and the population of Gibraltar was created by Great Britain to help rule over the territory.[xviii] The argument is there are no such thing as Gibraltarians as it is either UK immigrants at The Rock or Spanish people who moved across the border. With this argument then national determination from the UN principle does not apply to Gibraltar as it is not a country as interpreted by the Spanish government.


Resolutions Over “The Rock”


There has been a lot of contention over The Rock, and it has been going on since Gibraltar was handed over. There is no exact route where step by step this is how the dispute over Gibraltar can be solved. One point that is shown in the current articles regarding this matter is there is no current dialogue between the UK and Spain regarding the status and proceedings of Gibraltar. A solution or any issues regarding Gibraltar and its surrounding area should first be addressed with dialogue. With Brexit, this issue should be looked at again especially if the UK is negotiating trade and travel deals with Spain. Gibraltarians want to be a part of the UK, but they also wanted to stay in the EU. Now that the UK left the EU, Gibraltarians who gain UK citizenship, they would not necessarily be able to freely move in and out of Spain. This can be detrimental to businesses that cross from Gibraltar and Spain on a regular basis. If a solution is not found, the Spanish minister’s proposal says Spain will have to continue preventing Gibraltar from existing at the expense of Spain.[xix] Spain claims illegal trafficking and unfair competition crosses over from Gibraltar. None of the articles have stated how serious the problem is and what the comparisons are with other countries next to Spain, but this ties into Spain wanting to secure the integrity of their border and why they want Gibraltar. Gibraltar also appears to be a gateway for those from African countries to go into Spain or the EU. With the idea of strengthening their border, a major open part of that border is Gibraltar in which people can use it as a steppingstone to enter Spain or other European countries.[xx] This argument requires more data and analysis regarding how many people immigrate to Gibraltar and Spain. Although Scholars know of this territorial dispute more analysis needs to be done, as mentioned with the immigration aspect and potential solutions should be proposed to finally provide some movement for this dispute. What is the definition of “possession” that Spain believes the Treaty of Utrecht meant? Are there illegal activities going across the border? Are there immigration waves using Gibraltar to go elsewhere? These questions and their answers can be used to understand the Spanish or British position over The Rock and with it can increase dialogue and potentially end a dispute that has been going on for hundreds of years.


By JTMS Intern Darren Agcaoili


*** The views expressed herein belong solely to the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of JTMS or Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies. ***


[i] Bosque, Maria Mut. “Brexit and the Commonwealth: New Challenges for Gibraltar.” The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs, Taylor and Francis, July 2017, https://doi.org/10.1080/00358533.2017.1352154. [ii] Lincoln, Simon J. "The Legal Status of Gibraltar: Whose Rock Is It Anyway." Fordham International Law Journal, vol. 18, no. 1, November 1994, pp. 285-331. HeinOnline. [iii] Vidal, Joaquín Rodríguez, et al. “Neotectonics and Shoreline History of the Rock of Gibraltar, Southern Iberia.” Quaternary Science Reviews, vol. 23, no. 18–19, Elsevier BV, Oct. 2004, pp. 2017–29. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.quascirev.2004.02.008. [iv] “Key Indicators.” Government of Gibraltar, www.gibraltar.gov.gi/statistics/key-indicators. Accessed 25 Mar. 2023. [v] Gulraj, By Priya. Recruitment a Top Priority as Regiment Marks 80 Years. 26 Apr. 2019, www.chronicle.gi/recruitment-top-priority-regiment-marks-80-years. Accessed 25 Mar. 2023. [vi] Bosque, Maria Mut. “Brexit and the Commonwealth: New Challenges for Gibraltar.” The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs, Taylor and Francis, July 2017, https://doi.org/10.1080/00358533.2017.1352154. [vii] O’Reilly, Gerry. “Gibraltar: Sovereignty Disputes and Territorial Waters.” Dcu, 23 Apr. 2021, www.academia.edu/47617215/Gibraltar_Sovereignty_Disputes_and_Territorial_Waters. Accessed 25 Mar. 2023. [viii] “Gibraltar Fact Sheets.” Government of Gibraltar, www.gibraltar.gov.gi/press/gibraltar-fact-sheets. Accessed 25 Mar. 2023. [ix] Bosque, Maria Mut, and Jennifer Perera. “Facing Challenges: A Multidisciplinary Overview of Gibraltar Through Its Past, Present and post-Brexit Future.” The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs, vol. 110, no. 3, Taylor and Francis, July 2021, pp. 317–19. https://doi.org/10.1080/00358533.2021.1933084. [x] O’Reilly, Gerry. “Gibraltar: Sovereignty Disputes and Territorial Waters.” Dcu, 23 Apr. 2021, www.academia.edu/47617215/Gibraltar_Sovereignty_Disputes_and_Territorial_Waters. Accessed 25 Mar. 2023. [xi] Bosque, Maria Mut. “Brexit and the Commonwealth: New Challenges for Gibraltar.” The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs, Taylor and Francis, July 2017, https://doi.org/10.1080/00358533.2017.1352154. [xii] O’Reilly, Gerry. “Gibraltar: Sovereignty Disputes and Territorial Waters.” Dcu, 23 Apr. 2021, www.academia.edu/47617215/Gibraltar_Sovereignty_Disputes_and_Territorial_Waters. Accessed 25 Mar. 2023. [xiii] Ibid. [xiv] Lincoln, Simon J. "The Legal Status of Gibraltar: Whose Rock Is It Anyway." Fordham International Law Journal, vol. 18, no. 1, November 1994, pp. 285-331. HeinOnline. [xv] Ibid. [xvi] Ibid. [xvii] O’Reilly, Gerry. “Gibraltar: Sovereignty Disputes and Territorial Waters.” Dcu, 23 Apr. 2021, www.academia.edu/47617215/Gibraltar_Sovereignty_Disputes_and_Territorial_Waters. Accessed 25 Mar. 2023. [xviii] Ibid. [xix] Ibid. [xx] Oda-Angel, Francsico. A Singular International Area: Borders and Cultures in the Societies of the Strait of Gibraltar. 1 June 2000, escholarship.org/uc/item/66n4r41f. Accessed 25 Mar. 2023.

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