The Detritus of Empire

31 October 2002

The Detritus of Empire

By Gwynne Dyer

Morocco is very reasonable about the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla which Spain has controlled for over four centuries (although it says it would like them back eventually). France never quibbles about the Channel Islands, which have been under English control for almost a thousand years, although they are just off the French coast. Canada raises no claim to the French islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon off the coast of Newfoundland: for Ottawa, the Treaty of Paris in 1763 settled that question once and for all.

So why is Madrid so obsessed about getting back the British enclave of Gibraltar, a barren peninsula on Spain’s southern coast that was ceded to Britain in perpetuity by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713? And why is the British Foreign Office determined to push the 30,000 residents of Gibraltar, whose only wish is to remain British, into a ‘shared sovereignty’ arrangement with Spain?

The last time Gibraltarians were asked to vote on a closer relationship with Spain, in 1967, over 12,000 voted ‘no’ and only 44 voted ‘yes’, so they are understandably unhappy about the current Anglo-Spanish talks on the Rock. Excluded from the negotiations because he wanted the right of veto, the elected chief minister of Gibraltar, Peter Caruana, has called a referendum for 7 November. The question is: “Do you agree that Britain and Spain should share sovereignty over Gibraltar?” The answer will again be an overwhelming ‘no’.

Officially, that will make no difference, for the British government says it will not recognise any referendum that it does not call and run itself. Caruana’s referendum is an attempt to sabotage the talks by demonstrating the total opposition of Gibraltarians to the whole idea of shared sovereignty, whose result, he says, would be “to curtail our rights, to legitimise the Spanish sovereignty claim and, in effect, to say to us ‘sooner or later you are going to have to be Spanish — if you don’t want it to be now it’s up to you to choose the timing in the future’.”

It is much the same deal that the British government was preparing to impose on the people of the Falkland Islands before the Argentine generals jumped the gun with their 1982 invasion, and thereby forced a reluctant British government to accept continuing responsibility for the welfare and defence of the Falklanders into the 21st century. Britain has been off-loading its former imperial possessions with a cynical disregard for the views of the local inhabitants for decades. But the Gibraltarians know a bit about public relations, and they are fighting back.

Spain today is a prosperous and fully democratic country that has left the era of civil wars and dictatorship far behind, and Spanish citizenship has exactly the same value as British citizenship within the European Union. Britain no longer runs an empire, so Gibraltar has no strategic value for London. A deal on shared sovereignty would end the petty harassment that Spanish governments have inflicted on Gibraltar’s residents since the dictator Franco first made it a major nationalist issue, and might even lead to increased prosperity for Gibraltar in the long run.

In other words, there is nothing vital at stake in the deal being cooked up by Britain and Spain. The Gibraltarians, for purely sentimental reasons, want to remain British, but why should the views of a mere 30,000 people take precedence over the desire of the British and Spanish governments to tidy up their relationship in these post-modern, globalised times? There is no rational reason, and yet it feels all wrong.

It feels wrong because the Spanish really are trying to have it both ways. They insist on the return of a rocky peninsula on their south coast that Britain acquired by treaty almost 300 years ago, but they flatly refuse to discuss the return of two almost identical enclaves on the north coast of Morocco that Spain acquired by treaty over 400 years ago. (Morocco, of course, says that if Spain gets Gibraltar, it wants Ceuta and Melilla back at the same time.)

But it also feels wrong because the world is too tidy already. Anybody who likes their reality spiced up with a few historical anomalies can only be pleased that there are still Dutch-speaking islands in the Caribbean, French-speaking islands in the Indian Ocean, English-speaking islands off Argentina, and a Portuguese-speaking country (much battered, but finally freed from a quarter-century of brutal occupation) on the eastern half of the island of Timor.

True, these are all remnants of the European empires that once conquered most of the planet. It would be fairer if there were also Arabic-speaking enclaves on the coast of India, Japanese-speaking islands off the coast of California, and a few Bengali-speaking outposts in the Irish Sea. But the unfairness of history is no argument for crushing diversity in the present.

Will the British Foreign Office succeed in selling out Gibraltar in order to placate a Spanish government that is a useful ally in the ongoing battles over the future shape of the European Union? Probably not, for its hands are tied by the promises of previous governments to consult the people of Gibraltar first. It may refuse to recognise the validity of Gibraltar’s referendum, but the rest of the world will notice, and so will the British public.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 10. (“It is much…back” and “True…present”)