Gibraltar is an island just off the coast of Spain. It has been a British colony since 1713. Spain wants it back. The EU is encouraging both countries to come to an agreement. But these negotiations were made even more difficult earlier this year, when British armed forces invaded Spain!
It was a cold, sunny weekend morning on San Felipe beach. February 17th, 2002. The sleepy town of La Linia: Spain had just woken up. People were walking the dog, fishermen mending their nets. And then, 30 Royal Marines stormed the beech! The locals looked on in bemusement as the British Army took up defensive positions in the sand. The Marines were expecting to be fired upon, with blank ammunition, by other British Marines pretending to be the enemy. Instead, they were greeted by two Spanish policemen.
"Good Morning, amigo."
"Good Morning, Sir," said the British Officer. "Excuse me, but is this Gibraltar?"
"No Seń or, that's Gibraltar." said the Spanish policeman, pointing at an island just across the sea, with a 426-meter rock sticking out of the top of it.
The British Army had invaded Spain. By mistake. A military exercise had gone horribly wrong. Ooops!
Of course, it is never a good time to accidentally invade someone else's territory. But this is a particularly bad time for the British to accidentally invade Spanish territory. The European Union is forcing Britain and Spain to come to an agreement over an argument that has been going on for over 300 years. Who owns Gibraltar?
Once upon a time, Gibraltar was part of Spain. This is not surprising as Gibraltar is only 1.2 kilometers off the coast of Spain. But during the War of Spanish Succession (1702-1713) Gibraltar became a pawn in the battle for the Spanish throne. Britain supported Charles III from Austria; Spain supported Philip V from France. The Austrians won and gave Gibraltar to the British. The Treaty of Utrecht confirmed Britain's ownership of the island, in 1713. This said that Gibraltar was British, and would remain so. Forever.
The Rock surrounded
The Spanish, unsurprisingly, got upset. They tried to take back the island by force many times. They laid siege to Gibraltar in 1779 for four years. But still the British kept them out. This was the last time that the Spanish tried to take back the island by military methods.
Since then, relations between Britain and Spain have remained frosty. In 1963, the question of Gibraltar's status was discussed at the United Nations. In 1969 the Spanish closed the frontier between the island and the mainland. Things remained that way for 16 years, when the frontier gates were reopened. But the issue remained unresolved.
The 30,000 residents of Gibraltar, however, have no doubt which side they are on. "Gibraltar is British and always will be," they say. Unfortunately, the British and Spanish governments seem to be close to reaching an agreement. It's simple. Gibraltar would be owned by the British and the Spanish. There will be joint sovereignty. The residents of Gibraltar are not pleased. In fact, they are furious.
One Gibraltarian newspaper, Vox, has accused the British government of "double-cross, double standards, lies, hypocrisy, and sad and shameful treachery". It demands that no agreement between Spain and Britain should be made without the islanders' consent. They want a referendum to decide the future of Gibraltar.
The island is just off the Iberian Peninsula, between the Mediterranean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean. This means that it always has had military importance. And this is why the Royal Marines have a base on Gibraltar. After the British Army's rather embarrassing mistake at La Linia, the local Europa Sur newspaper reported that senior diplomats from Spain and Britain had discussed the incident. A British Ministry of Defence spokesman explained that the marines would have guided themselves from the warship HMS Ocean to the beach using an ordinary compass. "Nobody will be disciplined," explained the spokesman. "But I think a few lessons have been learned."
At a time when such delicate negotiations are taking place over the future of "the Rock", the residents of Gibraltar are hoping that the British don't lose their way again and give the island back to the Spanish.