Tensions between Spain and the United Kingdom have emerged in recent days after Spanish authorities increased security measures along its border with the UK’s overseas territory Gibraltar. Tensions reached their high point in August, but have yet to fully subside. The dispute revolves around maritime development and a Gibraltarian plan to construct an artificial reef off its shores in order to foster sea life. The Spanish government has argued that this would be illegal and create an obstacle to Spanish fishing in the area. As a result, Spain has increased border checks, creating serious delays at the Gibraltarian border. Both governments have expressed concern over the matter and engaged in predictable political posturing, while simultaneously espousing their commitment to pursuing a negotiated resolution. Of course, the two countries will not come to blows over the matter, and the political wrangling will most likely subside shortly, it does indicate the stubborn persistence of territorial politics that European integration has sought to transcend.
This is the second time this year that one of the UK’s anachronistic outposts has attracted such attention. Several months ago, the disputed Malvinas/Falkland islands held a trivial referendum reasserting the universally known fact that most people there want to retain ties with Britain. The British government feels an understandable commitment to defend their constituents in these far flung territories, but it would be equally understandable if they are seen to be burdening the country’s foreign policy. One could be forgiven for expecting populations of small, imperial era, pseudo-statelets to approach all of their interlocutors with a degree of equanimity, if not obeisance. This is especially true since the arguments on behalf of these territories’ inhabitants often rest on the premise that they are troubling no one. Instead, at least this year, they have taken provocative actions that have undermined the UK’s relations with both Argentina and Spain. Nonetheless, the UK will remain steadfastly supportive of these overseas populations and entangled in the accompanying territorial disputes for the foreseeable future.
This is not to say that the inhabitants of the UK’s overseas possessions are entirely to blame for this state of affairs. In some respects their approach to international relations is entirely understandable. They are small, vulnerable territories with well-established cultural traditions, and are much more closely linked with Britain than their closer neighbours. Furthermore, their contentious territorial holdings continually represent a convenient target for diversionary politics or even warfare as occurred on the Falklands/Malvinas in 1982. In this case, there have been allegations that the Spanish government’s approach to the current quarrel over Gibraltar has been fuelled by a desire to divert attention from domestic corruption. With this in mind, it is difficult to criticize these territories for vocally asserting their wishes and even occasionally taking actions designed to forestall any subtle erosions of their autonomy from rival claimants. What might seem needlessly provocative, presumptuous, and unduly disruptive can also be interpreted as an entirely rational reaction to their circumstances, which is what can make these small territorial matters such protracted affairs.
The issue of sovereignty over Gibraltar is so immersed in national biases, clearly evidenced by the tone of media coverage in each country, that it seems likely to continue in perpetuity. Both sides of the dispute are well versed in pointing out each other’s hypocrisy and inconsistencies. British commentators cite Spain’s possession of Melilla and Ceuta, to which Morocco lays claim, as analogous to Britain’s control over Gibraltar. On the other hand, the rise of startling migration control tactics in the UK might make it difficult to accept any lectures on border controls from the current government in London.
Both sides’ claims have strengths and weaknesses, but more importantly these arguments are fundamentally grounded in nationalistic politics. This marks the deeper significance of what is an otherwise predictable periodic political flare up, because it provides another important reminder of the limits to European integration. The biggest obstacle to an ever-closer union does not, as is so often argued, lie in geopolitical power politics – though this is indeed an obstruction. Instead, more attention should be paid to the formidable domestic impediments to continually deepening integration.
One factor is the economy and the essential variation within Europe which is often defined by national boundaries. But this is accompanied by the persistence of nationalist politics, which lies beneath the surface throughout the continent. These two matters are not unrelated, and the regional economic crisis has precipitated the rise of nationalist politics across the political spectrum. Left-wing movements have promoted a degree of economic nationalism, and, distressingly, right-wing movements have capitalized upon and further galvanized anti-immigrant sentiments. So while much attention will be paid to the political manoeuvering of Spanish and British authorities over the coming days, the fight over this small territory can also illuminate some more fundamental concerns about the state of European politics.