Gibraltar: Border dispute gone wrong

The recently revived dispute over Gibraltar epitomizes many of Europe’s current political woes, argues Daniel Schade, head of PDU’s London Office.


Gibraltar, the rock of contention

After a heated 2012, during which the then almost forgotten sovereignty dispute over Gibraltar returned to the Spanish, British, and European agendas, things seemed to have turned relatively quiet for the first half of 2013. But recently, and just in time for the traditional political summer slump, the small rock that functions as a tax haven has returned to the headlines across the continent. It did so accompanied by images of long and tedious border queues that most Europeans only remember from a past long gone.

The legal and political arguments that are at the origin of the dispute between the United Kingdom and Spain have been debated extensively1 and shall not be repeated here. It is relevant, however, to see the conflict in the bigger context of the current state of Europe. In a way the ritualistic and childish posturing of two European governments over Gibraltar is a symbol of many of the continent’s current problems.

A well orchestrated conflict

The entire happenings of the past few weeks over Gibraltar read like a manual for European governmental action gone wrong. Despite statements to the contrary, the conflict is actually convenient and beneficial for the governments of both, Spain and the UK.

For Spain’s conservative Prime Minister Rajoy, who is facing heavy criticism over a corruption scandal engulfing his party, the escalation of tension over Gibraltar is a convenient and orchestrated distraction for the public. In the broader picture it helps to divert attention from the government’s failure to rescue the Spanish economy from its downward spiral.

For Britain’s equally conservative government the conflict is a welcome tool to demonstrate tough action, rather than just lip service, when it comes to British national interests. This helps to overshadow the Conservative Party’s internal anti-EU rebellion and to counter the encroachment of UKIP, the UK’s home-grown nationalist party, into the Conservative’s electorate.

Who pays the bill?

While these two national governments are able to use the big gamble over Gibraltar for their political benefit, it is ordinary European citizens who shoulder most of the burden that comes with it.

Andalucía, the region in Spain that surrounds Gibraltar has been hit particularly hard by Spain’s economic crisis. Yet Spain’s introduction of excessive border controls2 means that it is ordinary Spaniard’s working in Gibraltar who shoulder most of the burden of the current political row. They now have to wait for hours on end at the border during their commute for work and back in the evening. This is despite there being no true regional origin for the conflict, as the necessary administrative interactions between Gibraltar and the neighbouring Spanish local governments are functioning rather well. The citizens most concerned and their employers thus clearly have not asked for the current escalation of the centuries-old conflict.

Both governments should have better things to do than to play with the livelihood of ordinary EU citizens. Rather than quarrelling over a rock for the wrong reasons, Spain should get its act together and focus on what its citizens need most, namely fresh ideas on how to relaunch its economy.

At the same time, Britain’s government should turn its recently staged outrage over multinational corporate tax payments into action and clean up its own frontyard. It should namely close the tax loopholes created by its overseas territories, of which Gibraltar is one. The UK equally needs to remember that the necessity for border controls is only caused by its decision not to join the Schengen area in the first place.

Such steps should allow for a gradual decrease of the importance of the legal question underlying the Gibraltar dispute, making the issue of sovereignty over what is essentially a large rock more and more irrelevant. Perhaps then ordinary Union citizens will be able to get to work and home on time without being used as bargaining chips in a big political game of broader public opinion that they haven’t asked for and that isn’t in their best interest.

Image Gibraltar courtesy to Arild Helgeland via, released under creative commons share alike 2.0.

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  1. See Wikipedia for a concise overview. 

  2. Spain is obliged to perform checks at the Gibraltar border due to the territory not being a Schengen member. Existing European treaties require these controls to be proportionate, however.