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Spanish Hubris, British Cant


October 3, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE WALL STREET JOURNAL. All rights reserved. 

Gibraltar is one of Britain's 11 remaining overseas territories (previously "colonies"). To the people of Gibraltar, however, it is our homeland, the future of which can only be decided by us in exercise of our right to self-determination. Yet the British government is locked in advanced talks with Spain -- which claims our land as its own territory -- with the aim of transferring sovereignty over Gibraltar to Madrid.

As a retired British governor recently put it, "Gibraltar is neither Britain's to give nor Spain's to have -- it belongs to the people of Gibraltar."

Spain contends that Gibraltar should be "decolonized," not by the self-determination of the people of Gibraltar, but by a handover to Spain, above the heads of the people and regardless of their wishes. And thus would Spain resolve an 18th-century historical situation in the 21st century, not by the application of 21st-century principles, but by the application of 18th-century attitudes. Gibraltar was last Spanish in 1704! That is a long time ago, compared even to the history of most of the world's independent states of today. In the last 1,300 years, Gibraltar has been Spanish for only 242 of them.

Ignoring all principles of democracy and modern political rights, Spain says that Gibraltarians cannot exercise self-determination because we are "an enclave," and are not an indigenous people, but rather the descendants of colonists. Of course, Spain maintains the very opposite stance in relation to her own enclaves in North Africa, which Morocco claims, and where the Spanish residents are not exactly indigenous to continental North Africa.

Be that as it may, Spain's stance also ignores the inescapable fact that many of today's independent countries are the result of the exercise of self-determination not by any indigenous population but by colonists, colonial settlers and their descendants, e.g., the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Caribbean countries and, of course, Spain's own ex-colonies in South America.

We are so sure that there is no basis in international law for Spain's stance that we are willing to refer these issues to the International Court of Justice for clarification of the applicable legal principles. Spain prefers to shun the court, and people are entitled to draw natural inferences from her position.

It is against this background that Britain and Spain last year relaunched negotiations over Gibraltar without our consent. Although they have not reached overall agreement yet, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told the House of Commons in July that Britain and Spain were broadly agreed on the principle that they should share sovereignty over Gibraltar. Mr. Straw made this tectonic political concession to Spain in the certain knowledge that the people of Gibraltar massively disapproved.

This constitutes a betrayal of our political rights as a colonial people, especially of our right to self-determination. It also legitimizes Spain's democratically indefensible sovereignty claim. The principles applicable to our future cannot be transacted politically between Britain and Spain against the wishes of the people of Gibraltar and without our consent.

The British government is committed not to implement any deal that it may strike unless it is approved by the people of Gibraltar in a referendum. But that referendum will not take place "for several years" (during which time our rights stand prejudiced) and even if (which is a forgone conclusion) the deal is eventually rejected in referendum, it will remain on the table as a reflection of an agreed framework applicable to the future of Gibraltar.

The Gibraltarians do not want joint sovereignty between Britain and Spain. The concept is politically and legally misconceived. If sovereignty is to mean anything at all, it cannot be shared in any way that respects the rights of the Gibraltarians. Nor will joint sovereignty end our colonial status, but rather it will enshrine it indefinitely, under two colonial powers!

The Gibraltar government's reaction to Mr. Straw's July statement has been to convene its own, immediate referendum on the question of joint sovereignty. This will take place on Nov. 7. The British Foreign Office's reaction to our referendum call has been to dub it an "eccentric waste of money which short circuits democracy and short changes the people of Gibraltar." Madrid's reaction has been to describe it as an interference by the people of Gibraltar in the Anglo-Spanish negotiations.

We disagree. In Gibraltar, where the referendum call has been enthusiastically welcomed by the people, we call it democracy.

Mr. Caruana is the chief minister of Gibraltar.

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