By MJ Couts
Over the past two weeks, the Gibraltarian government has managed to ramp up the public relations battle with Spain to highs, not seen since the collapse of the Franco regime and full opening of the border in 1985. The furore began over a number of spiked, concrete blocks being dropped into waters off the coast of Gibraltar. The intention was ‘allegedly’ to increase fish stocks in the area.
Over the past few years, Gibraltar and Spain have been engaged in a number of skirmishes that have resulted in the Spanish Civil Guard (Guardia Civil), Royal Navy and Gibraltarian Police involved in military stand offs over fishing rights and territorial incursions. In recent incidents; Guardia Civil officers fired rubber bullets at a jet-skier who accidentally crossed over to Spanish waters. In November 2012, the British Permanent Foreign Office Under Secretary Simon Fraser summonsed the Spanish ambassador after “provocative incursions” into British waters.
Having lived in Gibraltar over the past year, the multiple hour waits at the border provide an enormous inconvenience for the island and its population. In Spain, the region of Andalucia and border town of La Linea de La Concepcion, have suffered from some of the worst economic decline in the post 2007 credit crisis world. La Linea has been declared the poorest town in Spain, and the coastal areas, east towards Marbella, have suffered as a result of corruption scandals and severe mismanagement of public funds. The income of Gibraltar’s 30,000 residents, plus the thousands of both Spanish and foreign workers, who live on the mainland, provide a vital source of both private and public revenue to the area.
In the wake of the public outrage expressed on the Iberian peninsular about ‘’Concrete-Fishing-Spike-Gate’’, Spanish foreign minister, Jose Manuel Garcia- Margallo, made a set highly controversial comments to Spain’s ABC newspaper. He has posited a potential €50 (£43) border fee, increased investigations into the tax affairs of over 6000 wealthy Gibraltarians living in Spain and the closure of Spanish airspace to Gibraltarian flights (currently only flying from the UK).
Ignoring the likely possibility that the threats are illegal under European law, the intention was to stir debate. It is no coincidence that these comments have come at a time of enormous economic problems and social unrest within Spain. A decision to engage with the topic of Spanish nationalism has been a cool political ploy to boost political credibility.
The governing political party in Spain, the Peoples Party, led by Mariano Rajoy, is currently polling equally with the socialist party according to a poll conducted in el Pais on 28 July 2013. A recent corruption scandal has centered on Rajoy, and his role in management of a slush fund run by his former party treasurer Luis Barcenas. He has refused to resign from his post, as the case rumbles on. Spain has the highest unemployment rates in Europe at over 25%, youth unemployment peaking at over 40% and threats of a ‘No confidence’ vote by parliament. A change in the political narrative and regaining public support, through engaging Gibraltar and the United Kingdom in public relations battle, is a desperate move.
As of the 11 August 2013, reports have arisen that Spain is looking to engage Argentina over the issue of both the Falkland Islands and Gibraltar with the UN. Argentina currently occupies a two-year term as a non-member of the UN Security council. Spain’s El Pais, newspaper, has claimed that Spain’s foreign minister Jose Manuel Garcia- Margallo, will use a trip to its former colony, next month, to raise the possibility of pursuing a joint international diplomatic campaign involving the UN and International Court of Justice, in the Hague.
The manner in which the Spanish government has managed to ramp up the rhetoric from boosting fish stocks, to forming a coalition with Argentina, for the sake of boosting their poll numbers, is admirable. Unfortunately, this Latino brotherhood has its flaws. Last year the Argentinian government forcefully nationalized the assets of Spanish oil company Repsol, which has severely damaged bi-lateral relations and prompted criticism from the Spanish royal family. Spain have always been careful not to directly criticize the UK in respect of the Falkland Islands because of their close economic and social ties. Spain and Argentina’s decision to combine the Gibraltar and the Falklands issues, could be seen as taking advantage of the British ambivalence with the EU, and a reduction in economic power, in the wake of the global recession.
Ironically, on the 11 August 2013, Argentina’s President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, and government, has undergone a mid-term primary election test. This will determine the level of support for her to gain a two-thirds majority in the upper and lower houses of parliament. Which could allow her to enact a constitutional change, allowing her to run for a third, consecutive presidential term.
The arguments for repatriation of Gibraltar and the Falklands rely on the belief that these populations do not deserve the right to self- determination; and these lands are Spanish and Argentinian properties. Spain’s argument is an easier one to surmise given its proximity and physical connection to the mainland. Unfortunately, Spain’s argument against self-determination does not extend to its own territory in Catalonia or its two protectorates attached to Morocco, Ceuta and Melilla. The Moroccan government has repeatedly requested UN and non-UN talks on their status. The argument Spain has used to justify keeping these enclaves as part of Spain, is remarkably similar to that used by the British in respect of Gibraltar and the Falklands.
It is difficult to see this debate disappearing soon; the British have controlled Gibraltar since 1704 and the Falkland Islands since 1690. Despite the electioneering, grandstanding and political rhetoric, repeated UK government policy has centered on the local populations right to decide which country they belong. Using cheap political capital to drum up nationalist support, for governments under increasing international isolation and economic maelstrom, will hopefully always be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism.
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