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The Sovereignty Claim

- Fact, Fiction and Opinion
by Emilio Peire (from Panorama 16th May 2002)

There has been ten times as much said, written and debated about the sovereignty of Gibraltar since 1940 than in the previous 157 years. The reason is so simple that it escapes the majority of people. For those 157 years British sovereignty of Gibraltar was not in dispute and no Spanish ruler or Government laid claim to it.


Since the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, in 1783, Charles III and all the subsequent governments and rulers of Spain, including General Franco, knew that the British sovereignty of Gibraltar could not be legally disputed. A Spanish Consul conducted diplomatic business in Gibraltar for one and a half centuries until 1954, fifteen years after Franco subdued Spain! The Spanish claim on Gibraltar has not soured Anglo-Spanish relations for three hundred years as politicians on both sides are now trying to make out. During the last two centuries, the Rock has only been a matter of contention since her Majesty's visit in 1954, which eventually led to the closure of the frontier in 1969. In February 1985 Spain and Britain agreed the re-opening of the frontier to enable Spain to negotiate her accession to Europe, whilst Gibraltar, the originally aggrieved party, had to grant Spaniards European rights in advance!. The newly found Anglo-Spanish rapport, the massive British investments and the European benefits afforded to Spain, together with the gradual advance of democracy in the Spanish institutions should have enabled the Foreign Office with firm British diplomacy to have avoided any Spanish difficulties over Gibraltar, after all, the colony had been a separate jurisdiction of Europe for years. It was a vital NATO command and had never been the source of any problems, until Spain started to interfere with little or no rebuke from the United Kingdom.


The political maturity and the advances in self-government achieved by the Gibraltarians in the 1950's angered the fascists in Spain. The prolonged and persistent propaganda efforts of Spain's only political party, created out of the fusion of "La Falange" and the "Juntas de Ofensiva Nacional Sindicalista", eventually swayed Franco to lay official claim to Gibraltar. His claim, just like the Matutes proposals four years ago and those being negotiated by London and Madrid now, are not based on any legal, historical or moral grounds.

Known as the Castiella's proposals, Franco's claim pretended to tempt the Gibraltarians with apparently greater autonomy but only convinced an insignificant minority of 44 in a referendum held in 1968. Other than the well-known "Red Book", the Dictator sponsored many a publication to help his campaign. The most significant is "Gibraltar y los Espaņoles" a thick volume so heavily documented that less that 10% refers to the narrative, the rest are notes on the sources of reference and lists of books, authors and others quoted and referred to. Copies of this book were sent to every Spanish ambassador, consul and commercial representative abroad. Yet, there is nothing in it to suggest that Spain had any legal or historical right to the place. The book simply appeals to the emotions of the Spaniards, with eloquent essays from frustrated politicians, retired generals and the heart breaking laments of Spanish poets pining for the Rock. In fact certain quotes from Spanish Ministers serve to confirm the definitive demise of a Spanish Gibraltar.


In 1955 a famous Irish historian and lover of Spain, Sir Charles Petrie, Corresponding Member of the Spanish Academy of History and President of the Military History Society of Ireland, was asked to write an introduction to a book titled "Gibraltar" written by Jose Pla and translated by Dora Round. There is little doubt that official funds served to write, translate and distribute the publication in the English-speaking world. On page 93 the author writes the following:
"The treaty which was applied like a compress to the chronic haemorrhage afflicting Europe bore the unlucky name of Versailles, and the date 1783. The diplomatic efforts to regain Gibraltar were naturally as fruitless as the previous military ones. Charles III, though he felt bold enough to plan an attack on the British Isles, had to give in to the urgent desire for peace on the part of the French and to abandon the idea of an exchange, contenting himself, after so great a sacrifice, with territorial concessions of unquestionable importance in America."

Contrast the foregoing with the same event as narrated in his introduction by Sir Charles:
"The next big conflict, the War of American Independence, had a very different result, for in it Britain was definitely beaten by a coalition of France, Spain and her own revolted colonists, though she had one or two successes to her credit both on sea and on land, among them being the defence of Gibraltar... When the time came to discuss terms of peace both the French and the Spanish governments pressed Britain hard to agree to some exchange for Gibraltar... Britain formally ceded to Spain by the Treaty of Versailles in 1783 both East and West Florida, and also Minorca, ...in return the Spanish Government confirmed the British possession of Gibraltar."
"The Treaty of Versailles is one of the most important events in the history of Gibraltar. It was freely negotiated between Britain and Spain, ...We know now that Spanish rule on the mainland at the New World was not destined to endure much longer, but to blame the Spanish government for the policy adopted in 1783 is to read history backwards. On the other hand Spain's recognition at this time of the British possession of Gibraltar, and the circumstances in which it was given, would seem to have provided Great Britain with a legal as well as a moral right to the place which it is at least arguable was not established by the Treaty of Utrecht. In any event, apart from some vain imaginings of Godoy, no further efforts were made by Spain to obtain the restoration of the fortress either by force of arms or by diplomacy for many a long year."
The Oxford University Press published a history of Spain of the eighteenth century and it has no mention of Gibraltar!


Until the death of the dictator, the Franco regime maintained an unrelenting diplomatic campaign covering every country and international organization directed against the British Gibraltarians as a people and a nation. The seeds planted over that period in the minds of all Spaniards has enabled subsequent Spanish administrations, in the face of diminishing opposition from the United Kingdom, to make ground at the United Nations, and now in the European Union. This has allowed them to be able to engage in negotiations on sovereignty with the U.K. without equal representation from Gibraltar.


The Chief Minister of Gibraltar believes that the Preamble to the Constitution does not permit the British government to negotiate the sovereignty of Gibraltar without obtaining the consent of the majority of the people of Gibraltar. This is a valid argument and should be taken to the forum of the United Nations and the Council of Ministers of the European Union, whilst at the same time pressing for the Treaty of Utrecht to be referred to the Courts, by reference to the Treaty of Versailles and the Convention of Human Rights. There is a possibility that the Commission and the Council of Ministers in Europe are recognising the unjust attitude of Spain and have allowed a year in which she must come to an agreement with the U.K. and put an end to her using the veto to delay European legislation because of her claim to sovereignty over Gibraltar. Failing such an agreement Spain may then risk being penalized if her restrictions against Gibraltar can be deemed to be illegal or illicit. I believe that the reversion to the two lanes for non-commercial traffic at the frontier is the first Spanish concession to European stimulus, even if for Gibraltarians it is not a guarantee of greater fluidity and only the re-establishment of a prior condition instead of the required red and green channels. The reason that an Anglo-Spanish joint declaration is being sought by June is very much to do with the Spanish Presidency of Europe.


In view of the certainty of a Gibraltarian rejection of any sovereignty concession, a referendum may not be considered at the very least before January 1st, next year. The Spanish Government has until then to consider whether to take a lead from our Chief Minister, who has publicly suggested the study of an Andorran solution, attempt to gain the confidence of the Gibraltarians by a moderate policy or revert to her aggressive attitude creating difficulties at European level, starting with the jurisprudence convention now being considered. In the latter case Gibraltar may suffer for a while, but eventually the Spanish government would necessarily have to succumb to European and British stimulus if she is to continue to receive the economic benefits that will enable her to surmount her problems at home and not sour her relations in Europe, where Loyola de Palacios is again under criticism and the United Kingdom is being threatened with legal action in matters of labour Directives on working hours etc.

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