A small British enclave on the tip of the Iberian Peninsula, Gibraltar has been disputed territory between Britain and Spain since Spain ceded it in the early 18th century. Since then, Spain has tried and failed to reassert its control over the province, strategically important in its being the gateway to the Mediterranean.
Military and diplomatic efforts to regain Gibraltar have coloured British-Spanish relations, most recently in the early 2000s, where British Foreign Minister Jack Straw conducted secret talks with the Spanish government. The negotiations concluded in 2002 with the announcement of a plan for joined soveriegnty, but were halted following a referendum in Gibraltar that same year, that saw only 1% of those who voted in favour of the idea.
Indeed, for much of its history, Gibraltar seems to have preffered British rule, resisting efforts by the Spanish to reclaim their lost territory. In a 1967 referendum on who should rule over Gibraltar, 44 voted for Spain, with 12,138 for Britain. The Spanish claim that the Treaty of Utrecht, in which Gibraltar was lost, did not cede control over the entire isthmus, but only the foritfied city, therefore rendering British control there illegitimate. Meanwhile the government in Gibraltar is opposed to this idea, stating the treaty ceded along with it all of its property, including fortifications along the isthmus. In London, the British claim that the treaty provided for British sovereignty over the isthmus, and that Spain has long sinced lost the ability to claim Gibraltar as their own, becoming a de jure British territory.
With Gibraltar’s autonomy on the rise, the three governments signed a pact in 2006, establishing Gibraltar’s right to be present in negotiations between Britain and Spain. This, along with constitutional reforms, have led to the island’s increased power over its future.
The Consequences of the 2016 European Union Referendum
With Britain voting to leave the European Union on June 24th, 2016, Gibraltar too will be forced to give up its priviliges as a member, possibly including exclusion from the Schengen Zone among other free trade agreements.
Geographically isolated, the possible consequences of leaving the E.U. could return Gibraltar to a scenario like that of the 60s, where Fascist Spain and Gibraltar’s border was blocked off. With increased difficulty to ship materials or travel on land, tarriffs on imports, and the need for a passport to travel across the border, the Gibraltarian economy is likely to suffer as tourism decreases and prices go up.
Hoping for a reversal in Gibraltarian opinion on its future, the Spanish government began to signal that it was open for renewed talks. With the re-election of Mariano Rajoy as Prime Minister following a year of political turbulence, Spain was free to make decisive policy decisions. In an interview with Spanish newspaper El Pais, Foreign Minister Alfonso Dasits said that while Spain was open to discussions on joined soveriegnty with Britain, there would be no future for discussions should the British government oppose it.
Despite its uncertain future, Gibraltar is unlikely to be open to such discussions, with relations poisoned by years of distrust and the Spanish economy already in trouble.