There have been comparisons to North Korea, calls for military action and threats of a blockade, all over a seven-square-kilometre strip of land that juts into the Mediterranean Sea and counts online gambling and offshore banking as its biggest economic activities.
But this is Gibraltar, a chunk of Spain claimed by Britain for more than 300 years, a peninsula where nationalist passions run deep and tensions between the Spanish and British governments have risen to levels not seen in 40 years – all because of a few dozen blocks of concrete.
A dispute that started over fishing and an artificial reef has led to a virtual closing of the border as Spanish officials tighten controls at the only crossing, causing waits of up to seven hours.
Spain is also threatening to introduce an unprecedented border fee of €50, or $69. And it’s considering restricting flights to the territory and launching a tax probe of Spanish properties owned by Gibraltarians.
Meanwhile Gibraltar’s leader has asked Britain to send in the navy.
“I think it’s fair to say that Gibraltar is in a state of siege,” Joseph Garcia, the territory’s Deputy Chief Minister, whose title is akin to deputy prime minister, said in an interview Tuesday. “The reality is that what you have here is a nation of 34 million people bullying 30,000 British people who don’t want to be part of Spain.”
The Spanish government, grappling with a corruption scandal and an economy in tatters, is showing no signs of backing down.
“Play time is over,” the country’s Foreign Minister, Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo, told a Spanish newspaper in an interview published Sunday, insisting the right-wing government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy will take a harder line than its socialist predecessors. “Gibraltar has to understand that with this government, things are never going to work that way again,” he said.
Mr. Garcia-Margallo blamed Gibraltar for acting in bad faith. While involved in a continuing dispute over fishing rights in the area, the British colony went ahead with a plan to build an artificial reef off its shore.
Gibraltar has argued the reef, which consists of 70 concrete blocks dropped into its eponymous bay last June, is designed to help replenish fish stocks. Spain, on the other hand, has said that construction has ruined fishing for Spanish boats. The border fee, Mr. Garcia-Margallo said, will help pay for compensation.
Gibraltar’s Chief Minister, Fabian Picardo, has shot back, accusing Spain of behaving like North Korea and suggesting that another Falkland Islands crisis could be brewing. He wants Britain to beef up its naval presence, which consists of a couple of patrol boats. And “hell will freeze over” before Gibraltar removes the reef, he said.
The border problems and escalating war of words have prompted a patriotic outburst in Britain. Prime Minister David Cameron has expressed “serious concern” at the Spanish actions and Foreign Minister William Hague issued a statement saying Britain stands “shoulder to shoulder” with Gibraltar “at this time of increasing Spanish pressure and rhetoric.”
Others have gone further.
“Spain is behaving in a treacherous fashion,” said Tory MP Andrew Rosindell, a member of the House of Commons foreign affairs committee. “They are breaking every rule in the book and every agreement they have ever made … I think the Spanish need to be taught a lesson.”
Gibraltar has been a source of friction between the two former colonial powers since 1704, when an Anglo-Dutch fleet captured the territory from Spain. It was formally handed to Britain in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 and later became a British colony.
For centuries, Gibraltar’s location as the gateway between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean made it a strategic port. It played a key role during the First and Second World Wars in antisubmarine campaigns and remains a British military base with its own electricity and water supply.
Spain has always wanted the territory returned, believing it is a relic of the colonial era that should be handed over. It has tried to take it back by force at times and impose sieges, notably by General Francisco Franco in the 1950s and 1960s.
The British have argued that Gibraltarians should determine their future and they have consistently said they want to remain part of the United Kingdom.
But times have changed. Britain withdrew its 3,000-member military contingent in 1991, leaving a 400-member Royal Gibraltar Regiment. It also came close to negotiating a joint-sovereignty agreement with Spain in 2002. However, that proposal was overwhelmingly voted down by Gibraltarians. In 2006, Britain, Spain and Gibraltar reached an arrangement governing border controls and flights. They also created a tripartite forum to handle disputes.
Gibraltar was also given more autonomy, with its own legislature and powers over taxing and spending. And it is a member of the European Union, through Britain. The result has been a thriving economy with low tax rates that have made it an offshore banking haven and a global centre for online gambling companies. Today, roughly 2,500 people, or 10 per cent of the work force, are employed by Internet gambling businesses. And whereas the military once accounted for 60 per cent of the local economy, it now makes up barely 6 per cent. More crucially for Spain, about 10,000 Spanish workers travel to Gibraltar every day for work, meaning the current border action is harming them the most.
Editor's Note: A previous headline on this online article stated that Gibraltar is an island. It is not. This version has been corrected.