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GIBRALTAR: The Last Colony in Europe – 300 Years On

Tito Drago

MADRID, Aug 4 2004 (IPS) - On the 300th anniversary of Britain’s occupation of the Rock of Gibraltar, the British government actively took part in the celebrations, irking Spain, which continues to claim sovereignty over the enclave, the last existing colony in Europe.

Britain bases its position on the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, a peace agreement signed by the British and Spanish crowns in which Spain implicitly accepted the occupation of Gibraltar – although without renouncing its right to sovereignty over the 6.5-sq-km territory on Spain’s southern coast.

Since 1964, six United Nations resolutions have classed the territory under British rule as a colony, but Britain has refused to accept the resolutions despite Madrid’s repeated demands.

Furthermore, after the Treaty of Utrecht was signed, Britain occupied an area alongside the Rock known as the Campo de Gibraltar (the Spanish hinterland around the Rock).

According to Spanish diplomatic sources, Britain turned a blind eye to the creation of a tax haven in that area, where they say tax evasion, money laundering, and smuggling of contraband of all kinds is carried out.

Spain has criticised London’s participation in the celebration of 300 years of British rule over the tiny territory of 30,000 inhabitants.

This is the third international incident involving Gibraltar since socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero was sworn in just a few months ago, in April. The first was the official visit to Gibraltar in June by Princess Anne. The second occurred when the nuclear submarine Tireless docked in Gibraltar that same month.

Both incidents also drew sharp protests from Madrid.

Wednesday’s festivities included an aspect that especially annoyed Spain, as expressed by the Spanish government and opposition parties: the participation of British Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon, who received a medal from the local government in Gibraltar and attended a military parade.

And on Saturday, a British frigate and two auxiliary ships returning from a tour of duty in the Persian Gulf arrived at the British base on Gibraltar, located on the Strait of Gibraltar, which links the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea.

Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said it was ”strange” that in the European Union (EU), to which Britain and Spain both belong, ”in this 21st century, the military occupation of part of a member state’s territory by another would be commemorated.”

Without ceasing to demand ”an end to the last colonial vestige in Europe” and to Gibraltar’s tax and customs privileges, which Moratinos said are unacceptable in the EU, the minister said ”a realistic solution” should be sought by all of the concerned parties, which he listed as Spain, Britain, Gibraltar, the Campo de Gibraltar and the EU.

But British Minister Responsible for EU Affairs Dennis McShane said the Union Jack would fly over the Rock until the people of Gibraltar, in a free vote, decided otherwise.

He was referring to a 2002 referendum in which 99 percent of voters in Gibraltar rejected shared British-Spanish sovereignty over the territory, which would have changed the Rock’s status as a British overseas territory, as it was declared in 1830.

Manuel Chávez, the governor of the southern Spanish province (”autonomous community”) of Andalusía, which borders Gibraltar, complained, pointing out that the original inhabitants of the Rock were expelled by the British and replaced by occupiers, who have no right, he argued, to express their will through a referendum.

Juan Carlos Juárez, mayor of Línea de la Concepción, a town near Gibraltar, agreed, saying the occupation of the territory bordering his town ”robbed us of our sovereignty.”

McShane, however, pointed out that the Spanish flag flies over the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla on the north coast of Africa, to which Morocco lays claim.

But Spaniards without exception respond to that observation by pointing out that Ceuta and Melilla already belonged to Spain in the 16th century, long before the Moroccan state was established.

Chief Minister of Gibraltar Peter Caruana, who was elected by the inhabitants of the Rock, defended the local residents’ right to commemorate Britain’s triumph over Spain, and said the celebrations were ”none of Spain’s business.”

He added that it was a bit impertinent of Spain to try to give Gibraltar classes on how to celebrate ”our very close links with Britain and our British sovereignty.”

The negotiations that the Spanish government is seeking with Britain are based on the argument that both countries form part of the 25-member EU, where freedom of movement is becoming the norm. Both governments have expressed a willingness to share sovereignty.

Proof of that is the fact that Britain accepted Spain’s proposal to leave Gibraltar outside of the new EU border control agency – which irritated Caruana because in practice it would leave Gibraltar outside of the EU.

Moratinos said that once contraband and the tax haven in Gibraltar are eliminated – towards which goal progress is being made with EU support – the economic, political and social future of the Rock will be tightly linked to Spain.

That link could lead, through negotiations, to shared sovereignty, which in turn would do away with Spanish restrictions on cross-border movements between Gibraltar and Spain, he added.

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