Gibraltar: Lib Dem MEP Graham Watson calls on EU Commission President to intervene

GibraltarSelf-determination — the right of nations to freely choose their sovereignty and international political status with no external compulsion or interference — is a pretty fundamental principle of international law.

It’s the basis on which British sovereignty in the Falkland Islands and Gibraltar is founded. 11 years ago, the people of Gibraltar were asked in a referendum if sovereignty of the territory should be shared between the UK and Spain: 98% said no.

So it’s little surprise that the past weeks’ sabre-rattling by a Spanish government desperate to distract the public from its own internal problems — Spanish border guards deliberately slowing frontier traffic, a threatened toll to cross from Gibraltar to Spain — should have been met by a steadfast response from the UK Government. One of the MEPs for Gibraltar is the Lib Dems’ Sir Graham Watson, who’s issued this statement:

“I am deeply concerned by [these] latest comments, which follow months of harassment of my constituents by the Spanish government. The people of Gibraltar have the clear legal right not to be discriminated against on the basis of where they are from; nor should their freedom of movement be restricted. I have asked the Commission to send observers to monitor the situation at the frontier. I have also raised in Parliament the case of shots being fired by Guardia Civil officers at one of my constituents riding a jet ski of the western beach. The European Commission must remind Madrid of its obligations under EU law. This type of behaviour is something typical of a bygone age.”

His words echo the concerns raised by Liberal International Secretary General Emil Kirjas:

“It seems that the Spanish Partido Popular is a party of bubbles. When it governed Spain under Jose Maria Aznar it created the “housing bubble” that led Spain to an economic collapse. Now under Mariano Rajoy it is creating a “nationalistic bubble” raising conflicts with the fellow inhabitants of the Iberian peninsula in the north and the south. The victims will be again the Spanish citizens, who do not deserve incompetent and corrupt government.”

Once upon a time, Gibraltar was strategically key to the UK, controlling entry to the Mediterranean. That’s no longer the case. The British government is happy enough to cede at least shared sovereignty to Spain, subject to the islanders’ wishes being respected. The irony is that the more Spain pushes the less likely that prospect appears.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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  • peter tyzack 17th Aug '13 - 10:56am

    I am not sure how UK govt can cede any sovereignty to Spain, when sovereignty belongs to the people to whom it relates..
    and anyway, surely self-determination is a fundamental of EU treaties, rendering nationalistic tendencies irrelevant in the modern EU.
    It might help the border problems if we all signed up to Schengen.

  • How exactly did Britain respect Spain’s right to self-determination when it forced Spain to give away part of its then national territory ( i.e. Gibraltar)?

    Because there is no point in complaining about Spain not respecting Gibraltar’s right to self-determination when Spain’s position is that Gibraltar is ultimately a part of Spain and hence has no more of a right to national self-determination than, let’s say, Wiltshire.

  • Spain is explicitly denies the principle of self-determination. See Catalonia and Basque region.

  • Clear Thinker 17th Aug '13 - 12:48pm

    Is Spain willing to give up Ceuta and Melilla on the North African coast?

  • Clear Thinker 17th Aug '13 - 12:48pm

    Perhaps we should consider ourselves in an Age of Transition as far as the Westphalian model of international relations is concerned?

    How can one nation not interfere in the affairs of another if there is trade between the two? Or movement of people? Or movement of capital? Or if a multi-national company can choose to pay its tax in the place where its tax bill is minimized? How can war be prevented if one nation cannot participate in the political debate of another, including by monetary support for parties in the other nation?

    How much slower would progress be if an international court of human rights could not have any jurisdiction in any nation?

  • How can you write an article on Girbraltar at the moment without mentioning the Gibraltar government’s actions dropping concrete blocks on the sea floor around Girbraltar, given that this sparked the whole thing off? Without that the article is really just a bit of sabre rattling of your own.

    I know you’re a good egg, but you still shouldn’t let the Daily Mail play you like a flute.

  • Chris Gamble 17th Aug '13 - 6:23pm

    The row was already escalating way before the reef…but then again its summer and it always does. The big difference this time is that the PP has a manifesto to invade Gibraltar regardless of the safety of human interests of its people. They keep quoting 300 years ago like they can resolve this in revenge. How? Genocide? If we take the argument literally from history then Gibraltar actually belongs to Neanderthals or earlier and the Ancient Britons should drive the Normans out of Essex.

  • David Morgan 17th Aug '13 - 7:32pm

    Regardless of what Graham Watson says, you can trust the LibDems on the people of Gibralter’s right to self determination. Neither he or, as far as I’m aware, any Lib Dem has condemned the anti-democratic attacks on their rights by one of his OWN MEPs, Andrew Duff,

  • Helen Dudden 17th Aug '13 - 8:18pm

    Graham you know that I visit the country quite often, I have interests in international law. I support the need for change on childrens issues, and child access. This you know.

    With the financial problems in Europe, I think this should be addressed as soon as possible, I don’t know how, but I do dislike the suffering I see.

    Of course, Gibraltar is one of those issues that will not be easy to solve. But on the other hand, I would most certainly
    welcome anything, that could improve the situation as it is.

  • “The British government is happy enough to cede at least shared sovereignty to Spain, subject to the islanders’ wishes being respected. ”

    The “islanders”? Who are they? Obviously not the inhabitants of Gibraltar, which is a peninsula. I suppose it could mean “the British,” but that’s not the usual term.

  • @Paul R
    Perhaps you need to read up on the Treaty of Utrecht (1713). As Clear Thinker indicates, Spain’s ownership of Ceuta is
    also not straight-forward – see the Treaty of Lisbon (1668).

    What Stephen Tall omitted to note in his article, is that neither Gibraltar or the Falkland Islands are or were “nation states” (and neither was Ceuta), Britain has just been very liberal (!) by applying this principle to it’s overseas territories.

  • @jedibeeftrix – It doesn’t matter whether self-determination was a factor in decision making at the time. If it is being held up as a factor today then the factor has to be applied fairly, not just when it suits us.

    If you remember when Hong Kong was handed back, only one of two parts of HK was (legally) due to be returned but BOTH were. Self-determination of the part that wasn’t due for return wasn’t considered though, was it? Rather it was a case of “You are being handed over also (becuase China has a much bigger Army than us)”. That isn’t the case for Spain so now it is “Self-determination is really important to us”.

  • @Roland – the issue of Ceuta is irrelevant as the UK isn’t a party to that. The UK government has no mandate to represent Morocco.

  • The people of Gibraltar wish to remain British, don’t they? Shouldn’t that be the end of the matter? The European Union is supposed to be founded on a commitment to democracy, isn’t it?

    But wait. We’re dealing with a country (Spain) where democracy is barely a quarter of a century old, and isn’t exactly democracy as we understand it here. For instance, the Spanish government refuses to allow a referendum to be held on independence in Euskal Herria. Basques continue to be tortured by the Guardia Civil. Only a few years ago, a newspaper, “Euskaldunon Egunkaria”, was shut down by the Spanish state and its editor arrested on grounds which proved to be wholly spurious. Britain holds on to Gibraltar, whose inhabitants overwhelmingly wish to remain British. Spain holds on to Euskal Herria, whose inhabitants are prevented from expressing their national aspirations.

    The Spanish right is insanely jealous of Britain’s greater success historically in building an empire, and of Britain’s current status as a world power.

  • Andrew Colman 18th Aug '13 - 8:03am

    The Spanish government doing the same thing as the British Government in placing “go home ” notices on vans . Foreigners are being scapegoated to distract from economic problems

    However, Spain are targeting the wrong people. The real problem is an overvalued Euro (for most of Europe except Germany) and taxpayers money being inappropiately used to bail out banks, the institutions that caused this mess in the first place.

    A global plan to reflate the global economy is needed, and the banks involved in the credit crunch should be sued to pay back the costs of the government debts incurred because of the credit crunch they caused.

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 18th Aug '13 - 9:08am

    This is the 21st Century and should we still possess such territorial interests?

    I think not!

    Clear Thinker, or should I say ‘Traditional Thinker’ seems to argue that because Spain is not giving up its territorial claims,then we should not, well I would suggest that just because another chooses not to do what is right, then this should not preclude us doing so.

    Of course Gibraltar which covers under 3 square miles in sizes, remains militarily of strategic importance, but as a Country we no longer directly possess the kind of interests in ‘The Med’ that requires our military to be present.

    Should the people’s of Gibraltar have a right in what happens next, yes they should, but they also need to be realistic, and this may well mean being less closely aligned to Britain.

  • Helen Dudden 18th Aug '13 - 9:48am

    I work on the subject of child access, and this covers countries all over the world.

    The Lib Dems have no MP’s in the group that tries to remedy the situation.

    We have to work with other countries, and this area is painful at times ,when it does not work.

    It is no good making comments, you have to play the game to win. Of course, there is great unhappiness in the country, mainly caused by the financial situation, and of course high unemployment. This can produce a situation that is unstable.

    I suggest that their could be at least one of your MP’s willing to sit through meetings that concern children who are caught up within international law, and of course we have to work together in some cases for a better understanding.

    If you believe in the EU, as I do, then put effort into problems, you can’t simply walk away.

    @peter tyzack, Shengen will not resolve these type of differences, it is of course in use now within quite a few of the borders within the EU.

  • @Simon Shaw – “Were the blocks placed on the Gibraltar/British side of the maritime boundary, on the Spanish side or some on either side?”

    You can take your pick on that one, depending on whose version of the maritime boundary you accept. Lack of a jointly agreed boundary is part of the problem.

  • Clear Thinker 18th Aug '13 - 11:48am

    Is the military angle relevant? Spain could surely rent us land for bases in a Spanish Gib as part of any settlement. As a matter of interest, would the present owners of land remain the owners of that land if such a settlement was arrived at?

    Sovereignty in the developed world is perhaps more about people nowadays than about land? Isn’t this more about Spanish leaders wanting a way to deflect criticism and blame for the effects of their own incompetence and corruption?

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 18th Aug '13 - 12:35pm


    I have to admit that my knowledge and interests are really in criminology and modern history, specifically the Holocaust, so I am totally aware of any new Mediterranean interests that we have, as we no longer own/govern the Suez, Malta, Cyprus , Palestine and I am pretty sure that we are not thinking of attacking Russia via the Crimea and the Black Sea.

    Perhaps you could enlighten me as to what our military interests are, that is unless they are a secret?

    As for Anglesey being similar, well three quarters of the Island are ethnic Welsh speakers and not Irish Welsh speakers, but if Eire put forward a valid case then obviously we should listen. I suspect that the real issue about giving back territory is the ‘elephant in the room’, those islands many thousands of miles away that we desperately wish to keep because of the potential mineral deposits called Islas Malvinas, oops sorry The Falkland Islands?

  • Clear Thinker 18th Aug '13 - 12:43pm

    @jedibeeftrix. Does the US have a military base in Turkey? Do they have a common foreign policy?

  • Let’s hear more about the dumping of concrete blocks – evidently with the deliberate intent of thwarting Spanish fishing boats. No-one seriously thinks this was the genesis of problems between UK and Spain over Gibraltar – it is one of many disputes about territory in the world and probably always will be – but that’s the point. In such a fragile situation how could anyone be surprised that the unilateral creation of this so-called “reef” has brought about some reaction from the Spanish Government. Is the “reef” really worth all this?

  • paul barker 18th Aug '13 - 2:36pm

    I dont know why the artificial reef was made but clearly the Gibraltar goverment should have consulted the locals first & not gone ahead without agreement – thats just good manners & being a good neighbour.
    Perhaps “our side” should offer to remove the Reef if it is the focus for such anger ?

  • Tony Dawson 18th Aug '13 - 3:17pm

    I spent part of my 21st birthday in Ceuta. My yacht chartering boss (English) was smuggling wine (which had come from mainland Spain originally) to Gibraltar in his fuel tanks. He hadn’t bothered to tell me that that was the purpose of our voyage!

    Besides Ceuta and Mellila, the Spanish have also chosen to retain the disputed Islas Chafarinas, the Isla de Perejil (250 meters from the Moroccan coast and inhabited only by goats!), Penon de Alhucemas and Gomera. Then there is Isla de Alboran which is pretty much half way between Spain and Morocco but Morocco has never claimed.

  • nuclear cockroach 18th Aug '13 - 4:47pm

    Spain has neither a legal nor a moral basis for its territorial claims on Gibraltar; the same is true of Argentinian claims on the Falklands Islands, South Georgia and the British Antarctic Territory. Their regular protests are the politics of distraction, fueled by jingoism and a distorted retelling of history, omitting the salient facts of how the current territorial disposition arose.

    Anyone whose personal national identity, property or economic circumstance was adversely affected by the British acquisition of these territories died many generations ago, at least seven in the case of the South Atlantic and ten in the case of Gibraltar. No one who lives or works in these territories or visits them suffers discrimination because of nationality, ethnicity or place of birth. It is clear that the governments and the overwhelming majority of the resident population of these territories wish to retain their British identity, yet would welcome cordial relationships with their hostile neighbours. Nethertheless, Spain and Argentina continue to press their claims, which if granted could only work by a process of economic disposession and ethnic cleansing, or, at the very least, strong repression of national and political identity backed by the force of their armed forces.

    Neither Spain nor Argentina currently has the capability to enforce their claims by military means. It must remain a priority, sine die, for British governments to ensure that this gulf in military capability remains. That means that military budgets must at all times remain sufficient to ensure that these territories are defended against plausible means of attack. The expeditionary capability must also remain to recapture those territories by force should it ever become necessary. If Trident is squeezed out by these demands at a time of budgetary constraint, I really couldn’t care less, as genuine military capability is infinitely more important than showboating with “weapons” that have no identifiable real-world use.

    However, the real threats are economic blockades and diplomatic action. Both Spain and Argentina are raising spurious claims of victimhood at the hands of a “colonial” British state. These claims should be vigorously countered in all international forums in which they are raised. It is vital that the spanish blockade of Gibraltar is subject to British government suits in European courts and to the clear presentation of Britain’s legal and moral position as guarantor of Gibraltarian sovereignity in all European Union political and legislative bodies. It is appalling to think how Gibraltar’s sovereignity would be endangered by the blinkered aims of British Europhobes.

  • Julian Tisi 18th Aug '13 - 5:03pm

    “The British government is happy enough to cede at least shared sovereignty to Spain, subject to the islanders’ wishes being respected.”

    It’s this sort of weakness that has sadly opened up room for the Spanish to sabre-rattle in the first place. Tony Blair was the main culprit but it’s absolutely imperative now that we are unequivocal in our support for the people of Gibraltar to determine their own destiny. Their wishes could not be clearer – as you say, 98% have said that they have no wish to be in any way run by Spain or have their sovereignty shared with Spain. That should be the end of it and we should make this absolutely clear to Spain – Britain will never surrender, share or negotiate the sovereignty of Gibraltar while the people of Gibraltar wish to remain British.

  • Julian Tisi 18th Aug '13 - 5:13pm

    “Spain has neither a legal nor a moral basis for its territorial claims on Gibraltar; the same is true of Argentinian claims on the Falklands Islands, South Georgia and the British Antarctic Territory. Their regular protests are the politics of distraction, fueled by jingoism and a distorted retelling of history, omitting the salient facts of how the current territorial disposition arose.” Totally agree with you, nuclear cockroach.

  • nuclear cockroach 18th Aug '13 - 5:32pm

    @Julian T.

    Thanks! 🙂

  • Tony Dawson 18th Aug '13 - 5:57pm

    “nuclear cockroach :

    “Spain has neither a legal nor a moral basis for its territorial claims on Gibraltar”

    I am sure that the Ancient Britons said much the same thing about the Saxons sweeping through England. Maybe Norway still wants Zetland back? 😉

    Sadly, human history greatly consists of nations doing things they shouldn’t do and occupying the lands they shouldn’t long enough to be considered the status quo. It starts with ‘might is right’ and moves on to ‘don’t rock the boat’. 🙁

    An example is the largest state in Europe between 14th and 16th centuries, the Lithuanian Empire. The pagan rulers at that time encouraged massive Jewish immigration and the Jewish settlers rose to eventually constitute a third or more of the urban population (though little in the villages). These people, many of whom acted as ‘landlord’s agents’ for the Polish/Lithuanian aristocracy, were eventually vilified as essentially-subhuman by first the Orthodox Christians of Russia/Novgorod (following the invasion and uprising of the Ukranian Cossacks) and later the Catholic Christians of Poland, Germany and Austria, (and the atheist Soviets, for completion). Starting in the late 17th century and accelerating into a climax in the last half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, each of these conquering peoples colonised and carved-up the Lithuanian territories which had previously stretched from the Baltic states through what is now Belorus to the Black Sea shores of Moldova/ Bessarabia and the Ukraine. As they did so, they persecuted the Jewish sector of the population relentlessly, which was a cynical but useful tool in keeping the larger native Slavic populations ‘happy’. Even under this persecution, the Jewish population of these lands increased in both numbers and proportion in ‘The ‘Pale’ which helped those who wanted to to paint them as an ever-growing ‘threat’. Half a million Jews serving in the Tsar’s army against the Germans didn’t help them much in the years immediately after World War 1.

    Subsequent to the second World War, with anti-Jewish sentiment still rife in large parts of Europe and especially the East , most of the remnants of the displaced and nearly-annihilated Jewish peoples eventually migrated largely to the coastal Mediterranean lands between Jaffa and Gaza which, at that time, were administered by Great Britain (a ‘poisoned chalice’ which various British rulers had tried to achieve since the 12th century!). The descendants of this population are presently pressing eastwards to the Jordan river with their ‘Settlement’ regime. Plus ca change. . . .

  • nuclear cockroach 18th Aug '13 - 7:44pm

    @Tony D

    The difference between the present day situation in Gibraltar or the Falklands and the settlement of the West Bank, is that the settlements are happening in our time, and directly affect living people or their children or grandchildren.

    It cannot be said that any indigenous community was displaced on the Falklands in the nineteenth century when it became a permanent British colony.

    In Gibraltar, much of the population fled, never to return, when it was captured by the British and Dutch. However, that was 1704. If Spain were to come into possession of Gibraltar today, that would harm living people, not those dead for centuries.

    The situation in the West Bank, however, is unacceptable, as people are currently being displaced by force. It isn’t a question of history, it’s a question of injustice happening before our eyes.

  • How about libdem MEP’s calling for action on the British government’s behaviour in hindering the free passage of travellers at UK entry points?

  • nuclear cockroach 18th Aug '13 - 11:50pm

    Chris, I would certainly be an enthusiastic supporter for any parliamentary candidate who supported UK participation in Schengen. Sadly, the craven lot seem afraid of frothing commentary in the Daily Misanthrope and the Sunday Xenophobe.

  • @nuclear: “Half a million Jews serving in the Tsar’s army against the Germans didn’t help them much in the years immediately after World War 1.”
    That same Tsar’s army also displaced *more* than half a million Jews who were resident in areas adjacent to the Eastern Front. There were also about 100,000 Jews serving in the Kaiser’s army against the Russians and French. The military record of members of the Jewish community had no influence one way or another on the rise of Central European antisemitism. The unscrupulous demagoguing of cynical or hateful politicians, however, had a great deal of influence.

  • nuclear cockroach 19th Aug '13 - 9:51am


    That was Tony D, not me. Just for clarity.

  • @nuclear: I beg pardon for the mistake.

  • Helen Dudden 20th Aug '13 - 9:04am

    If you look on the Reunite Facebook page, there is a very recent television interview on the subject of what I have input into.

    This is the reason why I have had critical comments from one person,

    Because I feel the situation is unfair and causes problems, do you think that I have come in on a spaceship?

    Lastly, when it happens to you, I can assure you, it causes family problems and upsets, you will keep going until it is resolved.

    This is reason why it is good to have an MP that can contact the All Party Group, raise the issue in the Commons, and be on your side.

    This is international law that does not work, this is costly, this is so emotional.

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