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THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
The Last Colony
By TUNKU VARADARAJAN
May 28, 2002
Last week, the prime ministers of Britain and Spain met in London to resolve the future of Gibraltar , Europe's oldest extant colony, ceded in perpetuity by the Spanish crown to the British under the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht.
Actually, "resolve" is a misleading word: The prime ministers met, as their foreign ministers have done before, to find the most painless way by which Britain might eventually relinquish, and Spain acquire, sovereignty over Gibraltar . The elected chief minister of Gibraltar was not present; nor was he welcome. How could he have been, since his stated position -- a faithful echo, no more, of the views of an overwhelming majority of the colony's 30,000 citizens -- is that there can be no transfer of Gibraltar's sovereignty against the wishes of Gibraltar's people?
Size isn't everything. So ignore the fact that Gibraltar , a mere fleck on the southern tip of the Iberian peninsula, is only a fifth of Manhattan's measurements. And since political labels don't always mean what they seem to mean, resist the very American temptation to cry out in horror at the mere mention of the word "colony."
Gibraltar makes sense only if you look beyond that word -- so apparently anachronistic in a Europe of increasingly blurred sovereignties -- and at the source of its people's passions. Those run so high at present that when Jack Straw, Britain's foreign minister, visited the colony recently, he was jostled by ordinary Gibraltarians, among the most loyal subjects of the British crown, and called "traitor," "Judas," and "bastard." This would be akin to Donald Rumsfeld, say, being hectored at a reunion of World War II vets.
But Mr. Straw, at the forefront of negotiations with Spain over Gibraltar , was sworn at for a very good reason. Gibraltarians are that rarest of political tribes, a colonial people who, far from seeking independence from the metropolitan power, wish instead to remain colonial. In this, they are like the Falkland Islanders, and are mightily unimpressed that a Britain which won't cede even the smallest stake in its South Atlantic colonial outpost to Argentina, is willing to go so far as to offer "joint sovereignty" over Gibraltar to Spain.
In doing so, the British government has ignored the express wishes of Gibraltar's people, who want not merely to remain British -- which they will, of course, under any co-sovereignty deal with Madrid -- but also reject passionately the notion of any Spanish title to their land. The last time there was a referendum on the Rock, in 1967, 99% of the people of Gibraltar voted to remain British. (This must be the only example in voting history where a 99% verdict was neither fraudulent nor risible, but, instead, a true reflection of a population's political bent.)
Observers in this country might ask, however, what all the current fuss is about. Is Spain so bad? In 1967, for sure, "Generalísimo" Francisco Franco was in power, and no Briton in his right mind -- and Gibraltarians are, above all else, Britons -- would have wanted to trade the protection of the mother of all parliaments for an undemocratic Spanish regime. But isn't today's Spain modern, and democratic, and "European"? What have Gibraltarians to fear?
Gibraltarians regard such questions as insulting, viewing them, rightly, as resting on a regard of the colony's people as ciphers, or as pawns in a larger diplomatic game between Britain and Spain. In effect, they are being asked: Why do you care so much about what nationality you are? To which Gibraltarians reply, For the same reason someone in Manchester would. Or in the Falklands.
Such double-standards aside, Gibraltarians are right to continue to be fearful of Spain. Recently, Josep Pique, the Spanish foreign minister, uttered remarks that laid bare the contempt with which Spain has consistently regarded them: "The Spanish government has always said that the wishes of the Gibraltarians were irrelevant on the issue of sovereignty, which is about territory and not about people." His predecessor, a man with an equally poor understanding of the notion of self-determination, was famous for declaiming at meetings that the people of Gibraltar had "no standing."
Spain is Western Europe's newest and most immature democracy, and its attitude to Gibraltar -- You people don't count -- should be enough to end all debate on the Rock, and in the House of Commons. Instead of wooing the Gibraltarians, which any mature democracy might do, Spain has sought to intimidate them and to strong-arm Britain into handing over the colony.
"If you want me," the Gibraltarian says to Spain, "you have to give me good reason to accept you." So far, all he has seen in the way Spain behaves toward him has done no more than convince him of the virtues of British rule.