A recent rise in tension between Spain and Britain over Gibraltar is a cause for concern, although the dispute is very unlikely to escalate into a military conflict. Spain and the UK are both part of the EU and NATO and anyone with a grain of common sense can see that it is in both countries interest to remain firm allies.
There are many shared interests, not least the approx 800,000 British ex-pats living in Spain. (More than 25 times the population of Gibraltar). There is plenty of online hysteria on both sides but Foreign Secretary William Hague appears to be keeping the dispute in perspective while putting the British case. There is a careful balance to be struck between the use of forces to make a point and their presence actually escalating a dispute. The UK must stand firmly behind the wishes of its citizens in overseas territories but avoid rash actions which will simply harden opinion. As a general principle, diplomatic efforts backed by strength are most effective. It is good to remember that a lack of British political conviction and inadequate forces led to the invasion of the Falklands by Argentina. Both Gibraltar and Falkland Islands also represent test-cases for the international community’s support for the rule of law & self-determination (which has a strong precedent). US support for the wishes of the Falkland Islanders is luke-warm at present and it will be instructive to see how much international recognition Gibraltar’s plight receives.
Escalating Spanish harassment
While the UK economy is hardly in the best of health, the Spanish government is reeling under the weight of corruption scandals and a disastrous economic situation caused partly by an insane property boom. With around 26% unemployment and mounting domestic problems, like Argentina in 1982, whipping up nationalist fervour and focussing on grievances with a foreign power provide a convenient distraction. Some even suggest that the Spanish politicians don’t really want Gibraltar, just use the issue as a vote-winner. Spanish vessels have routinely been flouting the law by fishing in British Gibraltar territorial waters (A tiny area extending just 3 miles off the coast) for the past 2 years or more, often aided by Spanish Guardia Civil police boats and even Spanish Navy vessels. This behaviour is completely unreasonable, given the hundreds of square miles of Spanish territorial waters close by. Most seriously, Spanish police fired rubber bullets at a jet skier in Gibraltar waters. Hundreds of Spanish and Gibraltarian workers cross the border in both directions for work each day – an arrangement that has economic benefits for both sides. Spain has been deliberately causing delays at the border and threatening to make charges for crossing (illegal under EU border agreements) and close its airspace to Gibraltar-bound flights.
Looking at a map one might think it is quite logical for Spain to claim Gibraltar, a tiny speck of land just 2.6 sq miles at the southernmost end of the country. The rights and wrongs of how the colony came to be owned by Britain are distant history but Spain permanently ceded the territory in the treaty of Utrecht in 1713. Like the Falkland Islands, the most important factor today regarding ownership of the territory are the wishes of the residents. Gibraltarians voted overwhelmingly by a 98% vote in 2003 to remain part of the UK and remain proud of their British citizenship and welcome the Royal Navy with open arms. Any Spanish claims to Gibraltar based on geography are totally undermined by their ownership of two very similar territories in North Africa; Ceuta and Melilla which have ethnically Spanish populations but are adjacent to Morocco. Spain has also not improved relations with the UK by selling 20 Mirage F1 fighter bombers to Argentina, elderly aircraft but an increased threat to the security of the Falkland Islands.
A strategic gateway
Of course Gibraltar represents more than just a couple of square miles of land, it has a strategic position as the gateway to the Mediterranean Sea and the Suez Canal beyond. In times past it was a key Royal Navy base, bustling with warships on their way to duties policing an empire covering half the globe. It was also the lynchpin of the allied victories in the Mediterranean during Word War II. Until 1983 there was a Royal Dockyard capable of major warship refits but as the RN has declined, so has its footprint in Gibraltar. However, it still remains a natural stopping off point for warships on the way to the main RN operating areas of the Med, the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. Refuelling, victualling and some maintenance can be undertaken while sailors for generations have appreciated a great run ashore on ‘the rock’ – ‘a British town in the sun’. The Straits of Gibraltar is one of the great “choke points” of the world’s oceans that international shipping must navigate. Any disruption to the free flow of shipping here would have a devastating impact on the UK economy.
The pocket-size ‘Gibraltar Squadron’
Although RN warships, submarines and RFAs frequently visit Gibraltar (recently averaging around 25 vessels per year) there are no major vessels based there. The RN’s permanent presence amounts to 21 personnel, two 24-ton fast patrol boats HMS Scimitar and Sabre and 3 Pacific 24 RHIBs. This small force (together with the Royal Gibraltar Police boat Sir William Jackson) is being kept very busy doing a difficult job by constant Spanish incursions. This little fleet is ideal for patrolling the territorial waters and dealing with fishing boats, as well as providing force protection to visiting warships. However, this is not a significant naval force and many are calling for an RN Frigate to be based there. The sorry state of the RN surface fleet, down to just 13 Frigates makes this highly improbable. Although it would be a potent statement, it would not be an intelligent use of slender resources especially when a serious shooting war with Spain is not going to happen. It would also be questionable to deploy a vessel designed to operate in the open ocean for the defence of waters around a harbour. The weakened state of the RN cannot have been lost on Spain which ironically still retains fixed-wing naval aviation with British-designed Harriers while the RN’s sole carrier will arrive with nothing but helicopters.
Penny Mourdant, MP for Portsmouth is actively lobbying government to build two Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) partly to keep the BAE Portsmouth shipyard in work but also to boost RN hull numbers. Although outside the very tight MoD core budget, if the Government were to agree to this common-sense proposal, then basing one of the OPVs in Gibraltar should be given serious consideration. Not only would it provide a more substantial symbol of UK commitment to the territory, but the OPV could conduct useful maritime security patrols in the Western Mediterranean and work with NATO vessels in the region. With a similar arrangement to HMS Clyde in the Falklands, the costs would be manageable with crews rotated every six months or so and repairs carried out locally so the ship does not have to return to the UK. Unfortunately, even if the OPVs are ordered it would be at least 3 years before they could be in service. The folly of continual cuts to the RN is now clearly exposed as government has left itself so few options. In the short-term maybe one of the RNs 15 minehunters could be sent but these specialist vessels are already at full stretch with 3 permanently forward-deployed in the increasingly-important Gulf region. Another stop-gap alternative could be an ex-merchant ship conversion.
At the time of writing the 3rd annual Cougar exercise involving the grandly-named UK’s “Response Force Task Group” (RFTG) is about to arrive in the Med with 3 vessels to visit Gibraltar. This is a long-planned, routine visit and the arrival of the ships is not a direct response to Spanish provocations. Although it’s ‘business as usual’ and no cause for Spanish excitement, the arrival of RN ships is always a boost to the morale of Gibraltarians who feel somewhat under siege. While these visits are welcome, these ships will of course sail after a few days. As part of Cougar13, HMS Illustrious is scheduled to visit NATO naval base at Rota in Spain and it will be interesting to see what welcome she receives.
Gibraltar will remain an important base for the Royal Navy and a useful staging post for global deployments. More importantly, the interests of the people of Gibraltar would best be supported by strong diplomatic efforts and a more visible naval presence.