Morocco is very reasonable about the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla which Spain has controlled for over four centuries. France never quibbles about the Channel Islands, which have been under English control for almost a thousand years although they are just off the French coast. Canada raises no claim to the French islands of St Pierre and Miquelon off the coast of Newfoundland: for Ottawa, the Treaty of Paris in 1763 has settled the question.
So why is Madrid so obsessed about getting back the British enclave of Gibraltar, a barren peninsula on Spain’s southern coast that was ceded to Britain in perpetuity by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713' And why is the British foreign office determined to push the 30,000 residents of Gibraltar, whose only wish is to remain British, into a “shared sovereignty” arrangement with Spain'
The last time Gibraltarians were asked to vote on a closer relationship with Spain, in 1967, over 12,000 voted “no” and only 44 said “yes”, so they are understandably unhappy about the current Anglo-Spanish talks on the Rock. Excluded from the negotiations because he wanted the right of veto, the elected chief minister of Gibraltar, Peter Caruana, has called a referendum on November 7. The question is: “Do you agree that Britain and Spain should share sovereignty over Gibraltar'” The answer will again be an overwhelming “no”.
Officially, it will make no difference, for the British government says it will not recognize any referendum that it does not call and run itself. Caruana’s referendum is an attempt to sabotage the talks by demonstrating the Gibraltarians’ total opposition to shared sovereignty, whose result, he says, would be “to curtail our rights, to legitimize the Spanish sovereignty claim and, in effect, to say to us ‘sooner or later you are going to have to be Spanish — if you don’t want it to be now it’s up to you to choose the timing in the future’.”
Spain today is a prosperous and democratic country that has left the era of civil wars and dictatorships far behind, and Spanish citizenship has exactly the same value as British citizenship within the European Union. Britain no longer runs an empire, so Gibraltar has no strategic value for London. A deal on shared sovereignty would end the petty harassment that Spanish governments have inflicted on Gibraltar’s residents since Franco first made it a major nationalist issue, and might even lead to increased prosperity for Gibraltar in the long run.
Thus there is nothing vital at stake in the deal being cooked up by Britain and Spain. The Gibraltarians, for purely sentimental reasons, want to remain British, but why should the views of 30,000 people take precedence over the desire of the British and Spanish governments to tidy up their relationship in these post-modern times' There is no rational reason, and yet it feels all wrong.
It feels wrong because the Spanish are trying to have it both ways. They insist on the return of Gibraltar but they flatly refuse to discuss the return of the two enclaves on the north coast of Morocco that Spain acquired by treaty over 400 years ago. (Morocco, of course, says that if Spain gets Gibraltar, it wants Ceuta and Melilla back too.)
But it also feels wrong because the world is too tidy already. Anybody who likes their reality spiced up with a few historical anomalies can only be pleased that there are still Dutch-speaking islands in the Caribbean, French-speaking islands in the Indian Ocean, English-speaking islands off Argentina, and a Portuguese-speaking country on the eastern half of the island of Timor.
Will the British foreign office sell out Gibraltar to placate Spain, a useful ally in the ongoing battles over the future shape of the EU' Probably not — its hands are tied by the promises of previous governments to consult the Gibraltarians first. It may refuse to recognize the validity of Gibraltar’s referendum, but the rest of the world will notice, and so will the British public.