Gibraltar is only a bugbear to Spanish people when it’s mentioned. It seldom is. How many times do you recall outrage and protests outside the U.K embassy in Madrid?
No. One must be careful to avoid thinking the Spanish see Gibraltar as some kind of occupation. It’s neither a nightmare of history or a daily affront on par with a zoned Berlin in the Cold War. It’s absurd to assume that 6.7 square kilometres are a tipping point to war for most people, save for the hawks which exist in both countries.
Lord Howard’s remarks in recent weeks did just that: the elderly Lord, who holds no government position, told a breakfast show that it was the anniversary of the Falklands War and that: “I’m absolutely certain that our current prime minister will show the same resolve in standing by the people of Gibraltar.”
The history of the peninsula is steeped in a confusion that is actually quite simple. An Anglo-Dutch force captured Gibraltar from Spain in 1704 during the War of the Spanish Succession on behalf of the Habsburg claim to the Spanish throne. The territory was subsequently ceded to Great Britain “in perpetuity” under the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713.
Flashforward, and in both the 1967 and 2002 referenda, Gibraltarians overwhelmingly rejected proposals for Spanish sovereignty by 99.19% and 98.97% respectively. In 2006, it solidified its constitutional identity following another referendum in 2006, though some of its powers, such as defence and foreign relations, remain the responsibility of the UK government.
Despite all of this, the Spanish Government still contests Gibraltar’s sovereignty, all while forgetting its own territorial arrangements. The government of Morocco has repeatedly called for Spain to transfer the sovereignty of Ceuta and Melilla, together with the rest of the Spanish plazas de soberanía (small islands and peninsulas) on the North African coast. Morocco has claimed the territories are colonies and demands their return on the grounds of restoring its territorial integrity, even though a majority of the residents want the region to remain Spanish.
The Spanish Government position is that both Ceuta and Melilla are integral parts of the Spanish state, and have been since the 15th century. While they are autonomous and have their own administrations, the United Nations list of Non-Self-Governing Territories does not include these territories because they are Ciudad Autónoma de Ceuta; sitting somewhere between a standard Spanish city and autonomous community. Gibraltar, because it has its own government and is all entirely self-governing, sits on the list.
The commonality is that these territories are living relics of imperialism that have transformed into unique communities. It makes no more sense for Britain to demand the transfer of Ceuta and Melilla to Morroco than it does Spain the transfer of Gibraltar to themselves.
Context, perhaps, is in the eye of the beholder.