Last Friday marked 25 years since the re-opening of the border between Gibraltar and Spain. The Spanish media headlined the anniversary with the words “sin advances”. True the over 300 year problem of the Rock’s sovereignty has not been solved to Spain’s liking but there are also those in Gibraltar who see the tri-partite forum as no advance at all.
The border was closed on June 8 1969 in a protest by General Franco who was angered that the people of the Rock had voted overwhelmingly (12,138 to 44) in a referendum to maintain the link with the British Crown.
The closing of the gates caused hardship for many people in the Campo de Gibraltar who had worked or done business on the Rock. It also saw Gibraltar meetings its labour needs across the Strait in Morocco instead of from nearby La Línea.
The frontier remained closed after the death of Franco and the introduction of democracy in Spain. Indeed it was not until December 12 1982 that the PSOE premier, Felipe González, decided to open the barriers so that pedestrians could pass.
We have to move on to February 5 1985 when the border was finally re-opened to pedestrians, vehicles and freight traffic. This was two months after the Spanish and British Governments had signed the Brussels Declaration which set out the basis for renewed discussions on sovereignty.
However no such talks took place till 2002 when the British administration of Tony Blair tried to bump Gibraltar in to a joint sovereignty accord with Spain then led by José María Aznar. A second referendum was held on the Rock in which the people rejected a break with Britain with the same force as they had in 1969 – with 98.97 per cent saying no.
On that occasion the Partido Popular government in Madrid did not follow Franco’s example although those crossing in and out of Gibraltar were subjected to major delays from the early 1990s onwards.
It was in 2004 that the Spanish Government of current PSOE premier José Luis Zapatero Rodríguez opted for a different approach towards Britain and Gibraltar. This lead to the forum of dialogue and the Córdoba Agreement that has seen the governments of Spain, Britain and Gibraltar talking at the same table – a concept bitterly opposed by the Partido Popular who believe that the Rock should not have its own voice.
Various agreements have been reached, the joint use of the airport is in the offing, cross border access is now much easier – but there is still much to be done. Of course there are those in Gibraltar who believe that the Córdoba process has given too much to Spain – whilst the Partido Popular believes the Spanish Government is too soft in defending Spain’s interests.
At present Spain’s centre left PSOE government has opted for dialogue and co-operation with Gibraltar’s centre right GSD administration. It could be that in the near future both governments will change with centre right Partido Popular ruling in Madrid and centre left GSLP on the Rock. In that case opposites will probably not attract. Britain could soon have a Conservative government with policy on Gibraltar unlikely to change but a tougher line with Spain could follow. What is certain is that the next 25 years are likely to be as fraught as the last.
Historical note: England took Gibraltar in 1704 and in 1713 Spain ceded the Rock to Britain in perpetuity under the Treaty of Utrecht. However the land granted under the Treaty is very different from the land the Rock holds today. In 1815, with Spanish permission, Britain set up a hospital camp on no man’s land because of an outbreak of Yellow Fever. When the scare was over Britain did not withdraw then occupied more land in 1854. In 1908 the ‘verja’ border fence was put up – by Britain – in response to the negative reaction of the government of Alfonso XIII to free trade. Apart from a historic claim to Gibraltar itself Spain also disputes Britain and the Rock’s right to the reclaimed territory.