The Squabble That Never Ends: Britain and Spain Duel Over Gibraltar

May 11, 2014
Originally published on May 11, 2014 1:37 pm

One recent morning, a mile-long line of cars waited to cross the international border separating Spain from Britain's Rock of Gibraltar. Spanish border guards were stopping every car, resulting in long lines that could take up to six hours to cross.

Spain said it was checking for tobacco smuggling across the international border. But these increased checks were Spain's retaliation in a spat over fishing rights and access to nearby waters, said Brian Reyes, news editor at the local newspaper, the Gibraltar Chronicle.

"Fishing with nets is illegal in Gibraltar waters. The Gibraltar government enforced that law — to the anger of Spanish fishermen," Reyes explained. "Britain claims three miles of water around the rock, and Spain says Gibraltar has no waters. That's the key to this issue. It's not about fishing — it's about jurisdiction."

And so it goes at this iconic spot where legend says that Hercules separated the continents, Europe from Africa.

In early April, Britain and Spain summoned one another's ambassadors over the incursion of a Spanish research vessel into the waters off Gibraltar. Rival navies face off almost weekly — though no shots have been fired for more than 300 years.

Still, the hostility on this border reinforces Gibraltarians' British identity. The first thing you see when you cross the border into Gibraltar is a typically British red phone booth, albeit next to a palm tree. The small peninsula is home to dozens of British pubs.

"We have your typical Sunday Roast with Yorkshire pudding, cauliflower cheese, vegetables," said Danielle Pratt, a waitress at the Gibraltar Arms pub, who rattled off the menu of typical British fare. "And we also do the typical fish and chips here as well, with mushy peas. That's the pub favorite."

Despite their British tastes and accents, only a fraction of Gibraltar's 30,000 residents — all British citizens — actually have ancestors from the British Isles. Most are of Spanish, Portuguese, or Italian descent. Their ancestors were Mediterranean traders from places like Venice, Malta — or as far away as India.

"They saw Gibraltar, at the entrance to the Mediterranean, as a great trading post," said Patrick Sacarello, who runs a coffee house his ancestors founded here in the 19th century. "The first Sacarello had a little sailing boat where he carried goods around the Mediterranean. This Italian influence can be seen in the stratas, the arches, the doorways — combined with English colonial architecture."

To Spain, Gibraltar is just that — a colony — left over from the British Empire. It's a peninsula physically attached to Spain, so it should belong to Spain — or so the thinking in Madrid goes.

But Gibraltarians have voted twice — overwhelmingly — to stay with Britain. The most recent referendum was 98 percent in favor.

"Of all the people who voted, only 44 people voted to go with Spain. And they say those were mistakes," laughed Tito Vallejo, a retired Gibraltarian soldier. "They voted in the wrong box by mistake. That's what they say."

There's just something about this Rock of Gibraltar, that ties people to it.

"We've been British for 300 years, and we have a hostile neighbor. People here identify themselves at British, they feel British. The identity of this people is intimately linked to this rock," said Reyes, the newspaperman. "Sure, it's just a rock. But it's a place — it's a home. And it's a pretty iconic rock."

The Rock of Gibraltar is made of limestone, which formed from prehistoric shellfish that died and sank to the bottom of the sea. The limestone was pushed up by the movement of African and European tectonic plates, creating this rock some 200 million years ago. It stands 1,400 feet high, and has been home to settlements of Phoenicians, Romans, Moors from North Africa, Spaniards and most recently, the British.

The 1713 Treaty of Utrecht awarded Britain sovereignty over the rock which continues today. Gibraltarians pay taxes to local British authorities, vote in local elections and rely on London for foreign affairs and defense only.

No story about Gibraltar would be complete, however, without a mention of Europe's only wild monkey population, brought to Gibraltar by either British soldiers or Arab traders, centuries ago.

Hundreds of Barbary Apes chomp on carrots, scamper over the rock and then nap in the sun.

"The legend is that whenever the last monkey disappears from Gibraltar, we'll give this back to Spain," said Mark Varjaque, a local guide who drives van loads of tourists to the top of the rock every day, to see the monkeys. "But I don't think that's going to happen."

Because, he says, the monkeys have been mating and multiplying like crazy.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Three hundred years ago, the rock of Gibraltar, rising dramatically out of the Spanish coastline, became a British territory. This has never sat well with Spain. And now recent disputes over the territorial waters around Gibraltar has sparked a naval standoff and a diplomatic row between the two countries.

Lauren Frayer traveled to Gibraltar to bring us the story.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: I'm at Spain's southern tip where the rock of Gibraltar casts a huge shadow over these city streets. There's what looks like a mile-long line of cars here waiting to cross the international border. I'm going on foot into British territory.

BRIAN REYES: Hi.

FRAYER: Hi, I'm Lauren.

REYES: I'm Brian. Nice to meet you.

FRAYER: Nice to meet you. I'm so sorry I'm late.

Once past customs, I ask Brian Reyes, news editor at the Gibraltar Chronicle, what's up with those long lines?

REYES: I mean, we've had peaks of queues six, seven hours. Yesterday, to get out, it took two and a half hours.

FRAYER: Why? Just at the...

REYES: Because they're checking every car, basically. And they're doing it very slowly.

FRAYER: Spain says it's checking for tobacco smuggling, but increased border checks are Spain's way of retaliating in a dispute over nearby waters, Reyes says.

REYES: Fishing with nets is illegal in Gibraltar waters. The Gibraltar government enforced that law, to the anger of the Spanish fishermen. Britain claims three miles of water around the rock. Spain says Gibraltar has no waters. That's the key to this issue. It's not about fishing. It's about jurisdiction.

FRAYER: London and Madrid recently summoned one another's ambassadors when a Spanish research boat motored into those waters. Rival navies face off almost weekly, though no shots have been fired for more than 300 years. Still, the hostility reinforces Gibraltarians' British identity.

DANIELLE PRATT: We have your typical Sunday roast with your Yorkshire puddings, your cauliflower cheese, your vegetables. And we also do the typical fish and chips here as well, with mushy peas. That's a (unintelligible) pub's favorite here.

FRAYER: Pub waitress Danielle Pratt serves up quintessentially British fare, but only a fraction of Gibraltar's 30,000 residents, all British citizens, actually have ancestors from the British Isles. Most are descendants of Spanish, Portuguese or Italian traders, like Patrick Sacarello, who runs a coffee house his family started here in the 19th century.

PATRICK SACARELLO: The first Sacarello had a sort of little sort of sailing boat where carried goods around the Mediterranean. There is a comparison with the merchants - sort of city of Venice. And this Italian influence can be seen also in the stratas, the arches, the doorways, combined with English colonial architecture.

FRAYER: To Madrid, this peninsula, physically attached to Spain, is a colony left over from the British Empire. But Gibraltarians have voted twice, overwhelmingly to stay British. The most recent referendum was 98 percent in favor, says Tito Vallejo, a retired Gibraltarian soldier.

TITO VALLEJO: Of all the people who voted, only 44 people voted to go with Spain. And they say that those were mistakes. (Laughing) They voted in the wrong box by mistake. That's what they say.

FRAYER: There's just something about this 200 million-year-old chunk of limestone, says newspaperman Brian Reyes.

REYES: The identity of this people is intimately linked to this rock.

FRAYER: But it's just a rock. I mean, like...

REYES: (Laughing) But, you know, it's a place. It's a home. It's a pretty iconic rock, not just a rock.

FRAYER: I joined a tour group to the top.

MARK VARJAQUE: OK, guys, now we're going to the highest point, 1,400 feet, 426 meters. You'll be able to take pictures of the views and the monkeys, but do not touch the monkeys 'cause they bite. Yeah.

FRAYER: No Gibraltar's story is complete without a mention of Europe's only wild monkey population brought here by either British shoulders or Arab traders centuries ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONKEYS EATING CARROTS)

FRAYER: Hundreds of them chomp on carrots, scamper over the rock and then nap in the sun. Tour guide Mark Varjaque has a theory.

VARJAQUE: The legend is that whenever the last monkey disappears from Gibraltar, we'll give this back to Spain. But I don't think that's going to happen.

FRAYER: Because, he says, the monkeys have been reproducing like crazy.

For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Gibraltar. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.