By Andrey Fedyashin
Queen Sofia of Spain will not be attending the Diamond Jubilee lunch at Windsor Castle on Friday, May 18th . She turned down an invitation to the biggest gathering of royal blood in recent years at the request of the Spanish government. The latter argued that it would be “inappropriate in the current circumstances” of heightened tension around Gibraltar.
The British press has called it “Spain’s Jubilee snub to the Queen”. The reference, of course, was to Queen Elizabeth II, because her predecessor Queen Elizabeth I, who fought Spain on land and sea, would have definitely approved. What business could the Queen of Spain possibly have on British soil and at Windsor Castle anyway?
The Windsor lunch will mark the start of mass celebrations of the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s accession to the throne in 1952. Both Their Majesties will no doubt feel some disappointment.
The outrage would have been even bigger were His Majesty King Juan Carlos of Spain sufficiently fit to attend, but he has declined the offer after fracturing his hip during a safari to hunt elephants in Botswana last month.
So the Rock is doing again what it has always done since the British captured all 6.8 square km of it in 1704 and Spain ceded Gibraltar to Britain in 1713 under the Treaty of Utrecht. Gibraltar periodically injects bad blood into British-Spanish relations, as Spain claims sovereignty over it.
This time the Spaniards have been enraged by the planned visit in June of the Queen’s youngest son the Earl of Wessex and his Countess wife, Prince Edward and Sophie, to the disputed territory. In 1981, the Spanish royal couple refused to attend Prince Charles’ wedding to Diana the Princess of Wales because they planned to visit Gibraltar as part of their honeymoon. The last royal to visit the territory was the Queen’s daughter, Princess Anne, who in 2009 opened a military clinic there, prompting diplomatic protests.
The Queen herself has only visited Gibraltar once back in 1954. The visit naturally inspired Spanish dictator Francisco Franco to renew claims to the Rock. The same year he even produced documents (based on information from the British National Archives) to claim that Spain had been promised the Rock in return for not attacking the territory during the Second World War. The British Foreign Office, however, called the Spanish proof “a flimsy and unconvincing document” and refused to comment any further.
That is more or less where the two countries stand now, and it seems to suit some 30,000 Gibraltarians just fine.
Though Gibraltar is as much a symbol of Britain’s colonial past as Windsor Castle or Buckingham Palace are of the monarchy, the people living there consider themselves probably more British than the Brits themselves. It is a remarkable place where the British collides with the Mediterranean and manages to prevail and suppress it.
According to the latest census, 83.22% of the population consider themselves “Gibraltarian”, 9.56% “Other British”, 3.50% Moroccan, 1.19% Spanish and 1.00% “Other EU”. Ethnologists actually say that, based on the origin of names in the electoral roll, only 27% might be considered Britons, 26% Spanish, 19% Italians and Genoese, with the rest being of Portuguese, Maltese and Jewish origin.
Indeed the locals feel so British that they resent the British press calling Gibraltar “the last colony in Europe”.
The Voice of Gibraltar Group said in its latest press-release on the coming Royal visit and Spanish reaction that “Gibraltar today is manifestly self-governing, and it’s time the UK press dropped the derogatory title ‘colony’ from their pages and articles. Britain does not have colonies any more, and even if it did, we are not one of them.” Well, they used to say practically the same about India, South Africa, Uganda, Kenya…
The group did not bother much with diplomatic niceties and added: “Have Spain taken their claim to the territory to the European Court? No, because they lack the courage as well as any basis for a claim. This year we celebrate OUR Queen’s Diamond Jubilee to mark 60 years of her reign. For much of that time, Spain was a dictatorship and it is only of late that they have brought their royal family out of mothballs.”
Andrew Rosindell, a British Tory MP and chairman of the Overseas Territories All-Party Parliamentary Group, made a statement to the tune of “Hands off our Gibraltar!” He claims that “Gibraltar may be close to Spain, but it is not Spanish and its people do not want to be Spanish.” He further suggested that it is high time for Spain to “grow up.”
The Chief Minister of Gibraltar (the local Prime Minister of sorts) Fabian Picardo also made his mark by sending on behalf of all good people of Gibraltar a “‘message of loyalty” to the Queen. She replied with a letter of Royal thanks.
In a peculiar sort of way, Gibraltar is a territory with a split personality without a chance of getting proper treatment. It remains wedged in time between the colonial past and present. Hence it has all sorts of troubles and sometimes absurd problems with its neighbors.
Among the recent ones is a row over fishing rights surrounding the Rock, which has also escalated in recent days with Gibraltarian authorities seizing Spanish fishing vessels entering its waters. A couple of days ago, Spanish and Gibraltar police skirmished over suspected smugglers aboard an inflatable power boat. Use of these craft off Gibraltar was banned 10 years ago to discourage smuggling and both Spain’s customs police and the Royal Gibraltar Police approached to stop the boat. The incident occurred in Gibraltar’s territorial waters, which Spain does not recognise. Spanish officers helped the boat’s three occupants evade Gibraltarian jurisdiction.
Last year, Spanish police, after many complaints, arrested a gang of men for selling “entry tickets” to gullible tourists queuing to get onto the Rock. The Spanish mayor of the closest city on the mainland La Linea saidthat criminal activity involving these so-called “frontier gangs” had now reached worrying levels.
Yet everyone admits that it’s a lovely place to live, as well as use as a tax haven and political asylum. It must be: one of Russia’s fugitive oligarchs Vladimir Gusinsky has offices and a residence there.