Gibraltar has been a British Overseas Territory since 1713, when Spain, under the Treaty of Utrecht, ceded it to Britain in perpetuity. The territory is just 2.6 square miles in size, and its population is estimated to be around 30,000. Gibraltar applied for full UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) membership and was accepted by the UEFA Congress in May 2013. Therefore, the Gibraltar “national” team will be able to compete in the UEFA European Championship beginning with the 2016 edition of the tournament.
The political situation of Gibraltar has been in dispute for decades. Spain argues that presently Gibraltar is much bigger than it was in 1713, and that in fact, part of its airport as well as housing on the west side of the island are built on reclaimed land. Spain asserts that the cession in the Treaty of Utrecht 1713 does not include the isthmus with the airport on it and the territorial waters, as the Treaty makes no mention about reclaimed land or territorial waters.
Gibraltar demands its right of self-determination pursuant to the universally recognized principle of international law, but Spain cites the UN principle of territorial integrity, through UN Resolution 1514 (XV), which says “any attempt at the partial or total disruption of the national unity and the territorial integrity of a country is incompatible with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” Under the UN Principles of Decolonization, territorial integrity takes precedence over Gibraltar’s right to self-determination. So, Spain argues that Spanish integrity takes precedence over Gibraltar’s right to be independent.
The UK notes that Gibraltar was ceded by Spain in the Treaty of Utrecht 1713, giving “the full and entire propriety of the town and castle of Gibraltar, together with the port, fortifications, and forts there unto belonging… forever, without any exception or impediment whatsoever.” It cites longevity of occupation, and argues that the UN principle of territorial integrity, as per UN Resolution 1514 (XV) does not override the principle of self-determination. The same resolution says: “All peoples have the right to self-determination; by virtue of that right they freely determine their political status.”
There was a referendum in Gibraltar in 1967, which called on both Spain and the UK to take into account the “interests” of the people of Gibraltar. In the referendum, 12,138 of the 12,237 voters chose “voluntarily to retain their links with the UK.” The referendum was condemned by the UN General Assembly, and not recognized by any international body or state. In 2002 after diplomatic talks between the UK and Spain, a sovereignty referendum was held. Voters overwhelmingly rejected a plan to share sovereignty over Gibraltar between the UK and Spain. People from Gibraltar believe the right of self-determination was given to it by the UK in 1960, and that the UN Charter enshrines the right to self-determination of all colonial peoples.
The UN does not recognize Gibraltar as an independent state or its right to self-determination because, among other things, the population of Gibraltar is a community artificially created from heterogeneous origins since 1713 by “colonial processes” rather than indigenous, and therefore thought it might not fulfill the criteria for any form of nationhood that could be interpreted as giving a right to UN “national” self-determination principles.
A large part of the reason for the conflict between Gibraltar and Spain is about money. Spain has accused Gibraltar of being a corporate tax haven, allowing companies and wealthy individuals to avoid paying millions. Spain also believes the border is being abused and draining Spanish resources. Smuggling – cigarette smuggling in particular – and also alleged circumventing of Spanish residency taxes are claimed to be two of the major trans-border issues. Fishing rights are another point of contention, with both sides complaining about incursions by the other into their territorial waters.
The most recent confrontation between the Spanish and the British authorities in Gibraltar happened in 2013, when the police and naval vessels created a maritime cordon around the Gibraltar tug Eliott and the barge MHB Dole as dozens of purpose-built concrete blocks were dumped into the sea. The Gibraltar Government said the reef would encourage marine life and help regenerate the seabed. However, in marking the boundary of British Gibraltar territorial waters in that area, the line of cement blocks also prevents Spanish fishermen from raking the seabed for conch in breach of Gibraltar laws.
Gibraltar is another example of a population demanding its right to self-determination, and although the UN has clear rules based on international law as to what elements must be met for a people to become independent, conflicts around the world based on the right to self-determination are still prevalent (e.g. Catalonia, Northern Cyprus, Kurdistan, the Basque Country, etc.). When considering the competing claims of Gibraltar and Spain both governments have good arguments for their position, and it does not look that the conflict between Spain and Gibraltar will be resolved any time soon.
But at least the Gibraltar national team will be eligible to play in the Euro 2016 football championships. Gibraltar will play against Germany, Scotland, Poland, the Republic of Ireland and Georgia in Group D of the qualifying rounds. The blind draw had originally put Gibraltar in Group C alongside Spain but the UEFA Executive Committee had decided earlier that Gibraltar could not meet Spain, too much political tension I suppose….