Britain has become embroiled in a curious little row over one of its last remaining colonies: Gibraltar. Home to 30,000 British citizens, it occupies 2.5 square miles on the rocky southernmost tip of the Spanish mainland. Spain ceded the territory to Britain by treaty in 1713, but it has trying to get it back ever since.
Now the government in Madrid is threatening reprisals against the self-governing enclave in a dispute over fishing. The latest row flared-up after Gibraltar laid an artificial concrete reef in disputed waters, hindering Spanish fishermen. Spain has demanded the reef's removal.
“What won’t happen is that decisions made by the executive in Gibraltar will be undone because of Spanish saber-rattling. Hell will freeze over before that happens,” says the territory’s Chief Minister Fabian Picardo.
But the saber-rattling is intense. Spain has imposed new travel controls causing long delays at the border; it’s talked about a levy of $65 on anyone who wants to cross into Spain, and it’s even threatening to close its airspace to planes headed for Gibraltar.
All about fish? Senior British lawmaker Sir Menzies Campbell thinks not.
“This reef may just have been the opportunity the Spanish government was looking for in order to divert attention from its very obvious difficulties at home,” claims Campbell.
The Spanish government has been engulfed by a corruption scandal, and if the Gibraltar spat is a distraction tactic it seems to be working: the corruption scandal has been temporarily knocked from the headlines in Spain.
For his part, British Prime Minister David Cameron is backing the Rock.
“I think it’s important to recognise that it’s not acceptable what’s been happening to the people of Gibraltar,” said Cameron. “But I’m very clear that Britain will always stand up for the people of Gibraltar."
Fighting talk, but this isn’t war. There’ s too much at stake. Last year, 13.5 million Brits spent their summer vacations in Spain. The Gibraltar reef seems unlikely to wreck Anglo-Spanish relations.