Tension rises in Gibraltar while the Royal Navy passes by

Tension rises in Gibraltar while the Royal Navy passes by

The current face-off over Gibraltar between the Spanish and British governments is the result of juridical and diplomatic differences, in such a way that it would be pointless for the dispute to be securitised or militarised. For Spain, Gibraltar is not a national security problem. It might be fiscally damaging and complacent with illicit trafficking, but the Rock is not the money-laundering haven for organised crime it is assumed to, or the only –or most important– point of entry for drugs originating in Africa. The drug-trafficking networks that operate from Africa aim at the most lightly monitored points of entry, regardless of the side of the ‘fence’ (verja, as the frontier is known in Spanish) they are on. They will continue to take advantage of the fact that the security forces of both nations are more intent on disputing the jurisdiction of the waters than on cooperating in the fight against illicit trafficking. Gibraltar’s tax advantages are exploited by all who can do so, regardless of the colour of their passports, and they will continue to do so as long as governments fail to suppress tax havens. People on both sides of the frontier also benefit to a greater or lesser extent from contraband tobacco, keeping their businesses running or ensuring there is no social unrest at the expense of the Spanish and European treasuries.

It would be sufficient for the law to be strictly enforced on a consistent basis, and to not look the other way, to prevent small-time contraband from growing into container-loads targeting Spanish and European consumers. If customs inspections are both legal and necessary, they should be so every day of the year and not only when tension is heightened. Going from zero to infinity makes it difficult to engage in dialogue (try explaining that inspections are proportional, random and non discriminatory) and those who encourage escalation –whether for patriotic reasons or just to sell headlines– have been quick to associate the arrival of British naval units to the escalation to a military phase of the dispute.

As early as the end of 2012, when Spain increased its special environmental protection in the disputed waters, certain conservative British MPs asked the government to reinforce the presence of military vessels to bolster the Royal Gibraltar Police. John Astor, Undersecretary of Defence and Defence spokesman in the House of Lords, then issued a statement to the effect that the Royal Navy policy in Gibraltar waters was under review. Everything has remained the same since then, despite the written reply of the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, to a question from the House of Commons: ‘We will continue to take whatever action we consider necessary to protect British sovereignty and the interests of Gibraltar, its people and economy’. The appeal to 19th-century gunboat diplomacy is typical of either declining or emerging colonial powers. Conflicts of a political nature are militarised, giving rise to the sabre rattling to which the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, Fabian Picardo, was most likely referring to. This also allows those who generate the tension (dumping one-ton blocks of reinforced concrete with metal spikes) to shield themselves behind the sabres.

But neither the Royal Navy has revised its policy nor has the Spanish Navy been showing the flag around the Straits of Gibraltar. The annual Cougar exercises train the new rapid response combat groups that guarantee British military power -connectivity and presence- in conflict scenarios in the Mediterranean, Middle East and Indian Ocean on the route from Portsmouth to Djibouti. The ships had planned to dock at Gibraltar and Rota in August on their outward-bound route and at Palma de Mallorca in November on their return, among many other ports of friends or allies, with manoeuvres programmed along the way for 42 Commando Royal Marines. Spain does not have a group such as this (although it has sufficient capacity to do so) and can therefore not take part in the exercises alongside similar combat groups from the US and France. Spanish participation will be limited to escort duties, including the patrol boat Serviola in Galicia.

Cooperation between the armed forces of both countries is more necessary than ever due to the shared strategic risks in scenarios such as North Africa, the Sahel and the western and eastern coasts of Africa. To this should be added the US swing towards the Pacific, the standstill in the EU’s common defence policy and the exhaustion of NATO’s cooperative security. Bilateral cooperation is even more necessary in the sphere of maritime security, but a European Maritime Strategy is not expected to be available until 2014 –at the earliest– and NATO’s Maritime Strategy was stillborn in 2011, and was unable to be applied in the War in Libya. In the absence of these structures, Spain and the UK need to coordinate to contribute to the maritime security of the Strait of Gibraltar, the Gulf of Guinea and the Horn of Africa. The 2013 National Security Strategy considers maritime security one of the important risks to national security and, once it is developed, it should provide guidance as to how to preserve the political, economic and environmental interests, which in turn should set the pace and guide the action of the armed and security forces in the Strait of Gibraltar.

Beyond strategic needs, it is up to governments to decide the civil and military measures that will either feed or defuse tension. The British government has missed an opportunity of showing its good sense and has maintained the escalation of the Royal Navy’s presence in the port of Gibraltar, knowing full well that it would encourage Gibraltarian ‘hooliganism’. On the other hand, the Spanish government has maintained its authorisation to the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious to dock in Rota to avoid heightening the escalation and to reinforce the credibility of Rota as a military base for the service and support of its allies, such as the US, in detriment of Gibraltar (annulling the latter’s usefulness in a zero-sum game).

There is no sense in the securitisation of a problem such as Gibraltar by taking advantage of the fact that the Royal Navy was passing by when the nature of the conflict is predominantly juridical and diplomatic. There is sense, however, in integrating all the influence Spain can wield in a political action strategy that makes its handling of the crisis predictable. The weakness of Spain’s position –which in its own self-perception is even weaker- is due to its erratic nature over the years, depending on the moment, the governments and the policies. That weakness encourages those who –on either side of the fence– see in the maintenance of the status quo or in self-determination the opportunity to live better at the expense of the general interest. On the contrary, a defined and sustainable Spanish position would reinforce its capacity to dissuade and to be predictable, sending a clear message about the consequences of their acts to those who, on either side of the fence, stir up the waters by pursuing their own selfish interests.