Spain/Gibraltar: What is behind new tensions over Gibraltar?

Rajoy and Cameron governments distract attention from domestic crisis with new flaring up of tensions over Gibraltar

The seemingly sudden increase in tension between Spain and the UK over Gibraltar highlights the unresolved sovereignty question over the region, which is a throwback to the colonial pasts of both countries. It also shows the readiness of both Conservative governments to use the issue to divert attention away from their planned poverty and public service cuts policies – aka ‘austerity’.

The Spanish President Rajoy is facing an extremely serious corruption scandal which involves him personally. The PP government are desperately trying to find a way out of the situation they are caught in which includes the possible downfall of the government. Only days before the appearance in court in the Bárcenas corruption case of the present General Secretary of the PP and and her two predecessors, it seems like the Rajoy government are making a special effort to maintain Gibraltar in the headlines over the summer and avoid any mention of the corruption case. The press, TV and radio have almost stopped mentioning the word Bárcenas and the headlines and comment pieces talk exclusively about ‘Standing up for Spain.’

The Spanish Government are accusing the Government of Gibraltar of unilaterally dumping concrete blocks in the sea around the peninsula which is impeding the work of Spanish fishermen. They are also accusing Gibraltar of being an illegal tax haven which needs to be ‘sorted out’ and a base for smuggling.

The Guardia Civil have received orders from above to check all cars passing the border which has resulted in massive queues and long delays. The Spanish Foreign Minister has also threatened to charge €50 to everyone entering and exiting Gibralatar, which would be a big escalation of the dispute.

10,000 Spanish workers have jobs in Gibraltar. Manuel López representative of the Association of Spanish workers in Gibraltar (Astecg) has said that the increase in tension between the Spanish and UK governments is adversely affecting the lives of workers and potentially good relations between neighbours.

On a recent TV Big Debate, various right wing pundits were wrapping themselves in the Spanish flag, condemning UK colonialism and praising Rajoy for ‘standing up for Spain.’ The PP Mayor of Algeciras (Spanish city near border with Gibraltar) who has played a central role in the increased tension over Gibraltar was challenged by Juan José who represents Spanish workers in Gibraltar: ‘ The Mayor says he stands up for Andalusia yet he never talks about the massive unemployment in La Linea. He does nothing for the workers of La Linea.’

Juan tried to make further points about how the whole issue was a diversion but was shouted down by a hysterical panel. Astecg also said that they regretted the conflict was being used to divert attention away from other issues.

“The issue of the concrete blocks put in the bay by Gibraltar has been manipulated. The government of Andalusia has put in many more blocks to protect the marine fauna but nothing has been said about this.’

A Spanish NGO has stressed that environmental questions should not be used as an excuse to inflame the conflict and that the government should pay attention to more urgent issues such as ‘bunkering’ which is the practice of supplying ships with fuel in the sea to avoid taxes. This practice takes place in the Bay of Algeciras where Gibraltar is situated.

The PP minister of Agriculture and the Environment Arias Cañete is the ex-President of Petrolífera Ducar S.L which is a company dedicated to this environmentally damaging ‘business’!

Foreign Minister, Margallo, has demagogically stated that ‘playtime is finished’ on the issue of Gibraltar. Astecg has responded that such irresponsible talk could bring about the worst crisis since 1969 when Franco closed the border.

It is clear that even if the government of Gibraltar had not launched the concrete blocks the PP government would have found another excuse to cause the conflict. This looks like a planned strategy on their part.

Rajoy and Cameron are now involved in tit for tat diplomacy. Cameron has threatened to take Spain to court over the passport checks while Rajoy insists they are within their rights and are seriously considering charging to pass the border. The Foreign Minister is even examining bringing a joint resolution to the UN with Argentina, linking the Gibraltar sovereignty dispute with that over the Malvinas/Falkland islands, which would represent an unprecedented hike in tensions between two of the EU’s big powers. Each is trying to appear stronger and resolute. In reality they are like two bald men fighting over a wig!

So what are the historical roots of this conflict?

Spain lost Gibraltar to Britain under the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 as a spoil of the war of Spanish succession. During the second world war the Rock was a strategic fortress and naval base for the UK in the Mediterranean. The Franco regime continually pressurised the UK for the return of Gibraltar even closing the frontier in 1969 which was the most serious crisis until today.

The tension over Gibraltar decreased gradually with the coming of parliamentary democracy in Spain, the signing of the Lisbon Accord in 1980 and the entry of Spain into the EU and NATO. However the opening of the border was delayed when Gibraltar was used as a staging post in the Malvinas/Falklands war in 1982.

The approximately 30,000 residents of Gibraltar have voted overwhelmingly twice in referendums not to become part of Spain. However, the demographic reality of the Gibraltar region presents a complicated picture, far from that of a simple “British ex-pat enclave” painted by many. In fact, only 27% of the current population are registered as British, alongside another 24% of Spaniards, 20% Portuguese etc.

The developing tension over Gibraltar shows that unresolved colonial conflicts can flare up in this unstable political situation caused by the capitalist economic crisis. It also shows that unscrupulous right wing politicians have no hesitation in playing the patriotic card when it suits them without any regard to the consequences for workers and their families and their livelihoods.

In the long run, disputes such as Gibraltar which represent a hangover of colonialism and Empire can only be resolved under the context of the cooperation between peoples which would flow from a Socialist Federation of the Iberian Peninsula and the whole of Europe.

During this present crisis socialists must explain that Spanish, British and Gibraltarian workers can have no trust in Rajoy and Cameron and their right wing governments.

The leaders of the Spanish workers’ movement and left also partially share the blame for this diversion of attention. With the government void of all legitimacy and hanging by a thread, they have done all possible to give it the breathing space it wants to begin to re-stabilise itself. Only an urgent sustained plan of struggle, including a general strike to bring down the government, workplace occupations and the formation of mass, democratic assemblies, linked to an united front of the left around IU and other formations, together with the social movements to fight for an alternative workers’ government, can ultimately cut accross the smokescreen tactics of Rajoy and Cameron.

  • Defend the right to work of Spanish workers in Gibraltar
  • No to draconian and excessive border checks
  • No trust in Rajoy and Cameron and their anti-working class governments
  • Protect the environment in Gibraltar Bay / Bahía de Algeciras. Stop Bunkering
  • Unity between Spanish and Gibraltarian workers, as well as with the working class of the UK and the rest of Europe, against austerity and capitalism
  • Undermine divide and rule with the fight for a socialist confederation of the Iberian peninsula, with full right of self-determination, as part of a Socialist Europe and world

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August 2013