photo by Paul Fuller
Here in the United States, we don’t generally think of our European allies as the sort of people who take hostages. The roughly 30,000 British subjects who live on Gibraltar, and many more in the United Kingdom, may have another view.
With formal negotiations over Brexit about to get underway, the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, is looking to exert maximum leverage over London – and he apparently came up with the brilliant idea of tapping into Spain’s centuries-old resentments over Gibraltar to do it.
After Prime Minister Theresa May submitted a letter formally beginning the process of untangling her country from the European Union, the EU published a set of draft negotiating guidelines. Tucked among them was a provision that any agreement between the U.K. and the EU affecting Gibraltar would need Spain’s approval, despite the fact that Gibraltar has not been under Spanish control since the early 18th century.
Gibraltarians are British citizens, though the territory is self-governing in all matters except defense and foreign policy. It is the only British territory located on the European continent and includes a U.K. military base. Despite the fact that many Gibraltarians voted “stay” in the Brexit referendum – hardly surprising considering the large minority of commuting Spaniards in the territory’s workforce – there has been no push within the enclave for any change in the political arrangement. In fact, the people of Gibraltar overwhelmingly rejected the idea of shared sovereignty 15 year ago, and sentiments do not seem to have shifted. Gibraltar’s chief minister firmly responded the EU’s proposed negotiating guidelines on his people’s behalf, saying, “Gibraltar belongs to the Gibraltarians and we want to stay British.”
Although for the most part we Americans ought not to stick our noses into a Continental family feud, it is worth making exception for Gibraltar. I would suggest that the Trump administration, very quietly, ask Tusk – a former Polish prime minister – which country’s telephone code he would prefer to dial on the day Russian troops come pouring over his homeland’s border. Would he want to direct his call to Washington, London or Madrid? And how satisfactory will the third choice be if the first two don’t answer?
All four nations are part of NATO, pledged to come to the other members’ mutual defense in the event of an attack. Poland is on the front line against NATO’s past and prospective future adversary, Moscow. Washington and London are founding members of the alliance that Poland joined after the Iron Curtain fell. Spain joined NATO in 1982, after it became a democracy with the fall of Francisco Franco’s nonaligned dictatorship.
But Madrid, like much of western Europe, is feckless when it comes to military preparation, and the Rock of Gibraltar stands sentinel over one of the world’s most strategically important stretches of water. Half of all global seaborne trade passes through the Strait of Gibraltar. The Russian Black Sea fleet – you know, the one based in Crimea, which Russia seized from another European nation not very long ago – would need to traverse the strait in order to pose a threat to Atlantic shipping, or to Britain and the rest of northern Europe.
The British held Gibraltar tenaciously in World War II, which contributed in no small measure to the Allies’ eventual victories in North Africa, Italy and ultimately the rest of the continent. The territory’s civilian population endured multiple evacuations: first to North Africa, then blitz-ravaged London, and some as far away as Jamaica. Meanwhile, saboteurs based in Spain made repeated attacks on Gibraltar and its harbor, as did Vichy French warplanes and Italian frogmen, both in collaboration with the Nazis. Hitler himself made plans to seize the Rock, which were thwarted only by Franco’s stubborn insistence on gaining control and, ultimately, by the demands of the German invasion of the Soviet Union. But in anticipation of a possible seizure, a six-man suicide squad of British servicemen prepared to entomb themselves in a hidden tunnel fortress to provide post-occupation intelligence. Had the plan been enacted, the men would have been sealed inside until they were liberated or until their seven years’ worth of provisions ran out.
Why should the United States care today which NATO ally ends up in control of Gibraltar? Partly it is a math exercise: Britain maintains a much larger standing and reserve military force, and it devotes more than twice as large a share of its gross domestic product to defense as does Spain. Partly it is history – the history of Britain defending the fortress and guarding the strait through the 20th century’s conflicts while post-colonial Spain turned inward and left itself isolated and relatively impoverished. And partly it is democratic: Gibraltar’s citizens, like those of the Falkland Islands whom Britain defended in the 1980s, are not interested in transferring their sovereignty.
Britain has controlled Gibraltar for more than three centuries, since the Treaty of Utrecht. The resulting offense to Spain’s nationalist sensibilities ought to be roughly equivalent to any Canadian offense at the continued French ownership of Saint Pierre and Miquelon off the coast of Newfoundland. Spaniards, take note: The Canadians don’t seem to mind. And they certainly don’t intend to try to make life miserable for the neighboring French on those islands, as Spain seems to want to do for Gibraltarians now that Tusk has revived the possibility of the Rock changing hands. While Spanish leaders have accused the British of “losing their cool,” the British are not the ones who cannot seem to accept a loss of sovereignty three centuries later.
Let the Brits and the EU sort out their own differences over trade, commerce and migration. But Gibraltar is a vital NATO asset. It is safest in British hands, with its people governed under the sovereign of their own choosing. Our administration ought to make clear to Tusk and other European leaders that any change in Gibraltar’s political status, or in the comfort and security of its population, is a matter of great strategic importance in Washington as well as in London. If Tusk wants someone to answer the phone the day those Russian tanks come calling, he had best not create a situation in which we have reason to decide to block his number.