Shaking Up the Rock

A crippled sub is reviving talk about Gibraltar's colonial status  

Illustration by Greg Harlin

On the morning of May 19 last year the HMS Tireless, a British nuclear submarine, limped into the ">port of Gibraltar, powered by its emergency diesel generators. Having suffered a small crack in the coolant pipe leading from its reactor while on routine maneuvers off the coast of Sicily, the Tireless sought refuge at Britain's nearest naval base, which happens to rest at the southwestern tip of Spain, on the tiny limestone peninsula known as the Rock. For the better part of a year politicians and scientists from Great Britain, Spain, Gibraltar, and the European Commission have been sparring over the extent of damage to the submarine and the possible safety risks to people who live in and around Gibraltar. Gibraltarians and Spaniards called for the Royal Navy to transfer the Tireless to a base in Britain; Britain argued that moving the sub would be too difficult and too risky. Repairs were finally begun, in Gibraltar, in January.

The debate over the Tireless has revived another, larger debate—over the political status of Gibraltar. To Britain, Gibraltar is officially an "overseas territory." The United Nations considers it a "non-self-governing territory." The Spanish consider it a colony, and they want it back. Despite years of Gibraltar-related bickering between Britain and Spain, over issues ranging from fishing rights to drug smuggling and money laundering, there have been few high-level talks about Gibraltar's status. The last round occurred in 1999. The controversy over the Tireless could well jump-start another.

Spain lost Gibraltar in 1704, when British and Dutch forces captured the peninsula in the War of the Spanish Succession. The
Treaty of Utrecht, in 1713, formalized Gibraltar's status as a British satellite. Spain has tried both diplomacy and guns to get it back. During the so-called Great Siege of 1779-1783 Spanish forces repeatedly attacked Gibraltar, betting, wrongly, that the British would be too preoccupied with the American Revolution to defend against the assaults. General Franco was obsessed with the dream of Gibraltar's return, and for much of his thirty-six-year rule Gibraltarians were uncomfortably aware of Spain's territorial claims on their land. In 1969 Gibraltar drafted a constitution that established limited self-rule and strengthened the territory's ties to Britain, so irritating Franco that he sealed the border and cut off all telephone communications and trade between Gibraltar and Spain. Spanish citizens who lived or worked in Gibraltar had to choose between becoming exiles and moving their homes or jobs to Spain. The border was not completely reopened until 1985.

The 30,000 citizens of Gibraltar are a distinct people with a culture all their own. Their official language is English; they also speak Spanish and, colloquially, a hybrid "Spanglish." Most Gibraltarians are Roman Catholic, but there are at least four synagogues on the peninsula. Gibraltar has a rich history with mythical underpinnings: the ancient Greeks thought it contained the gateway to hell, and Europeans before Columbus considered it to mark the western edge of the world. The territory has its own flag, its own currency, its own Internet-domain suffix; it even fields its own Miss World contestant.

Gibraltar's main draw has always been its location, at the mouth of the Mediterranean. During World War II, Gibraltar was an important British air and naval base, used by the Allies for anti-submarine campaigns and during the invasion of North Africa. Its small airstrip, which sits along the border with Spain, is still pressed into service. The base is currently a stopover for British troops headed for the UN peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone.

A bunker lies buried somewhere deep inside the Rock. In addition, the British military has dug thirty miles of tunnels, which are used for training infantry in specialized maneuvers. Rumor has it that the British have nuclear weapons stored in this subterranean warren; no one on the outside knows for certain whether this is true.

The British also consider the peninsula important for intelligence reasons. Near the southern tip of Gibraltar sits a massive radar dish, pointing toward Morocco. The dish monitors the Strait of Gibraltar, through which a significant amount of the world's sea traffic passes.

Economically, though, Gibraltar is not much of an asset. Although it was considered the northern pillar of Hercules and is still often evoked as a symbol of strength, it is only three miles long and less than a mile wide. Many Gibraltarians live in modern cookie-cutter housing projects built on landfill. The historic downtown has become little more than a shopping promenade dotted with British pubs—a far cry from the charming whitewashed villages of nearby Andalucía. Gibraltar does have an active port and, because it is a tax haven, some international banking activity, but the peninsula is largely dependent on tourism. It has no agriculture and no indigenous source of fresh water; it produces and exports practically nothing. As far as Spain is concerned, acquisition or sharing of the territory would be largely symbolic.

Gibraltarians on the whole were satisfied with the status quo—until the arrival of the crippled and possibly dangerous sub. Gibraltar's Chief Minister, Peter Caruana, has made no public statements against having the Tireless repaired in Gibraltar and no official demands for its removal; the territory is militarily dependent on Britain and is loath to provoke British anger. The public has been more restive. Mass demonstrations against the submarine's continued presence have drawn thousands of people in Gibraltar, and also in the nearby Spanish town of La Linea. This is the first time in recent memory that a political issue has united citizens on both sides of the border.

Gibraltar's constitution includes provisions protecting the territory from being ceded to another country against the people's "freely and democratically expressed wishes." The only time Gibraltarians voted on the issue, in 1967, the tally was 12,138-44 in favor of remaining part of Britain. However, that was at a time when fears of Franco were at their peak. Anti-Spanish sentiment does not exist to such a degree in Gibraltar today, and Spain is now a prosperous democracy, offering many of the political and economic opportunities that Britain does—but right next door. In 1997 Spain proposed to share sovereignty over Gibraltar with Britain, saying that it would give the peninsula a level of autonomy similar to that of the Basque country. Britain agreed to consider the proposal, but specified that it could be implemented only with Gibraltarian consent. The government of Gibraltar rejected the offer—but such an arrangement might hold more appeal in the wake of the furor over the Tireless.