The senator José Carracao, perhaps the most understanding of the mainstream Spanish politicians with regard to Gibraltar, recently told Panorama: “Gibraltar cannot be a British colony indefinitely.” He is of course right but not in the manner he envisages.
Now there are those who would argue that with the new Constitution Gibraltar has entered a post-colonial state. Equally there are others on the Rock who would contest that view. I am a hack and not a constitutional expert so will let that debate pass other than to observe there is no consensus on the issue.
I am a Briton of a certain generation so still hold emotional links towards Gibraltar yet I accept that the younger age groups in the UK do not. Yet I have no strong views on what the future status of the Rock should be. I have no strong view because I am not a Gibraltarian – my only firm belief is that whatever option is eventually selected it should be the free choice of Gibraltarians alone.
The status quo is that Gibraltar is under the British Crown possibly still colonial, may be not. Compare that with Ceuta or Melilla that neither Carracao nor any other Spanish politician would consider to be a colony. Although they lie across the sea in another continent they are deemed to be an integral part of Spain. This of course does open up the debate on whether Gibraltar should be integrated in to Britain but that is for another day.
In a recent letter to Panorama on the congestion charge Michael J Sanchez wrote: “Inaction is interpreted by Latin countries as ineptitude and weakness which the FCO in London has never come to grips with.” He sadly is right. Since the days the British Empire was dismantled the Foreign Office has been in a guilt ridden state over its former or remaining possessions.
Compare its agonised reaction to the on-going Spanish criticism over British involvement in Gibraltar with Spain’s stout defence of Ceuta and Melilla and outright rejection of Morocco’s claim to these territories. The Spanish monarch and his family are regularly sent across the Strait to demonstrate Madrid’s commitment to its enclaves. The premier and leading politicians walk its sands. Gibraltar’s Queen would never be allowed by London to visit the Rock and no British Prime Minister has been here since Churchill during World War II. Make no mistake if it wasn’t for the 1969 preamble the Foreign Office would have happily handed Gibraltar over to Spain lock, stock and ceremonial keys.
Now whilst Spain is contemptuous of Morocco’s claims over Ceuta and Melilla that does not tell the whole story. Back in 1975, in Franco’s dying days, Madrid handed over the Western Sahara to Morocco and Mauritania with an indecent haste that the Foreign Office would have been proud of. Mauritania later withdrew leaving Morocco to fill the vacuum and annex the territory.
This has led to an on-going fight by the people of the Western Sahara for independence backed by the Polisario Front that has drawn support from Morocco’s neighbour Algeria. Although the Spanish Government long ago washed its hands of its former colony many Spaniards have not.
At a basic level many communities in Spain take in the children from the refugee camps of the Western Saharans over the summer months. At a more acute level are activists from such organisations as SaharAcciones.
They are in the news because 14 Spanish pro-independence activists were arrested in the disputed Western Sahara on Saturday night and beaten up. The Moroccan police arrested them in El Aaiún, the chief town of Western Sahara. Moroccan government spokesman Khalid Naciri has since said in a statement: “The Moroccan government cannot take responsibility for what happened in El Aaiún, but that must be assumed by these provocative tourists.”
Madrid at first demanded answers from Rabat but then concluded the activists had “taken part in an illegal, unauthorised demonstration, during which these altercations took place.” Spanish premier José Luis Zapatero stated: “It is an essential principle of foreign policy to maintain a good relationship with neighbouring countries like Morocco." In other words “no surrender” on Ceuta and Melilla but Rabat can rely on Madrid’s compliance over the Western Sahara.
Western Sahara peace activist Aminatu Haidar said Morocco had demonstrated it has no respect for Spaniards or their government. Gibraltarians might say much the same thing about Spain.
(The above article appeared in Panorama on September 3, 2010).