Britain and Spain seem to always be at each other’s throats, a rivalry which can be traced as far back to Henry VIII quitting the Catholic Church in order to divorce Catherine of Aragon, daughter of Ferdinand II and Isabella I, King and Queen of Castille, and unifiers of Spain. Having not already realised that this act was already a gross insult to the two most powerful persons in the western world, Henry had Catherine locked up in prison until her death. Then, of course, was the Spanish Armada. The events of 1588 will forever signify the beginning of the end of Spanish domination and the rise of Anglo supremacy. Of course, there were times, such as the Peninsular Wars, where the British sided with the Spanish on the basis of a common hatred, generally of the French. But these were few and far between.
Perhaps all this, much like the Anglo-French rivalry, would have died down, had it not been for the issue of Gibraltar. What may seem just another small peninsula, ‘The Rock’, as it is colloquially known, is at the very entrance to the Mediterranean Sea, creating a 15km bottleneck of a strait that bears its name. Whoever controls it controls European and Trans-Atlantic trade. Though Spain also controls Ceuta and Melilla, neither of which are geographical fortresses. They lack the imposing height, the sheer cliff drop, the cave system labyrinth, all of which make it seem impenetrable. This is why the Nazis did not even attempt a planned capture of the rock. It would be too costly. A joint French-Spanish Siege (If you remember what I said about the Peninsular wars, now you can see that International Alliances are merely temporary and superficial) in 1783 lasted 4 years and resulted in a Status Quo Ante Bellum.
So, as you can guess, trying to take Gibraltar by military means is a very stupid thing to do indeed. Which is why Spain has resorted to diplomatic means and legal trickery to push their claim. Now, the trickery first. Spain claims that British Control effectively prevents Spain’s right to Self-Determination, an argument they claim is based on UN Resolution 1514. Of course, if this was the case, then Spain would have to give up Ceuta and Melilla to Morocco. In that case, their counter argument is that Spain is closer to Ceuta and Melilla than Gibraltar is to Britain. In other words, the last two African colonies are within Spain’s direct sphere of control. Spain also claims that the Gibraltarians are colonialists, arguing that all but 70 original Spanish residents left after the British conquered Gibraltar. It is an irony considering that Spain legally considers Britain the legal controllers of the rock, even suggesting that they want a repeal of the section of the Treaty of Utrecht which gives Gibraltar to Britain. Whilst it may seem a more polite manner of saying ‘we want your land but accept your presence’, the reality of Spain’s push for control is a lot more aggressive.
It should come as no surprise that the claim to Gibraltar by Spain is a legacy of nationalist posturing from the Franco Era. Indeed, the issue seemed dead in the water until General Franco himself tried to force the issue. He argued that Britain had promised Gibraltar to the Spanish in reward for remaining neutral during the Second World War. Britain responded swiftly, saying that such a deal was never made, and there was no commitment whatsoever. Spain’s claim was nipped in the bud very quickly, however. A referendum was held in 1967, in which, of the 12,237 voters, only 44 voted in favour of Spanish sovereignty. In fact, there were more blank/invalid votes, as 55! Despite Spanish objections, Gibraltarian status as a British colony was cemented. It is something, however, that Spain cannot accept. Another referendum, held in 2002, proposed joint British/Spanish rule. Again, the poll was rejected convincingly, with 99% rejecting it.
However, what is usually a diplomatic dispute has taken on a much darker turn. Spanish police and fishing vessels have been accused of making illegal incursions into Gibraltarian waters. An attempt to create an artificial reef in order to prevent such incursions led to Spain imposing a 50 Euro border fee along with stricter entry rules, which led to joint diplomatic arbitration. With Britain triggering Article 50 and officially beginning the process to exit the EU, Spain sense an option. Knowing that Gibraltar voted 96% in favour of staying in the EU, they have come to the belief that Gibraltar may be willing to accede to Spanish Sovereignty. Gibraltarian Chief Minister Fabian Picardo has repeatedly shot down such a claim, reaffirming Gibraltar’s British status through thick and thin. An attempt by Spain and the EU to allow Spain a veto over Brexit applying to Gibraltar has been attacked as allowing Spanish rule by the back door.
To add to the mix, Lord Howard, Conservative Leader of the opposition from 2003 to 2005 ad current Life Peer in the House of Lords, has effectively argued that Theresa May would militarily intervene if Spain invaded. It is a statement that has earned the ire of all sides, Spain included. Such a romanticist view of war in defence of a British territory might have well been written by Captain Mainwaring! That is not to say what he has said is in any way fanciful. If push comes to shove, Teresa May could well defend Gibraltar. However, such comments are, in reality, poorly timed. For someone that led the Conservative Party into the 2005 election, and was Foreign Secretary prior to that, he should know that even just one politician, even if they are isolated from the issue at hand, can cause a diplomatic furore. At a time when a diplomatic and cordial approach with Spain and the EU is needed, Jingoism and dreams of glories past are not welcome. Of course, it will most likely be seen as a minor diplomatic incident which can easily be forgotten. But considering Lord Howard’s seniority, such an eventuality cannot be 100% relied upon to occur.
Of course, as I said before, Mr Howard’s comments are just poorly timed, not inaccurate. Although, as we have seen above, Spain prefers a more diplomatic approach to the Gibraltar Question, more nationalistic elements within the Spanish Government have been notably trying to provoke a response from Britain and Gibraltar. It is an issue that has only increased under the tenure of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. Local Spanish fishermen, Guarda Civil and Spanish naval ships will enter Gibraltarian waters, even just for a few moments, hoping that it will inflame tensions. The latest was the naval patrol boat Infanta Cristina on April 4th. Gibraltar’s response is often a strong protest, often lodged with the support of Britain. Sometimes, it will be a warship. In 2013, HMS Westminster was sent to the peninsula much in the same manner that Lord Palmerston would send warships in a show of force. Even though war between Spain and Britain over Gibraltar is 99.99% unlikely, Spanish actions have made many in Gibraltar fear that 0.01% chance. Neither side wants war. Even Spanish posturing is restrained compared to other territorial claims. Yet the chance of one slipup, as has been the case in history, that would cause conflict, frightens many on either side of La Linea de la Concepcion.
A theoretical simulation
So, the question is, how would such a war play out? I myself cannot profess to have any military training whatsoever, but considering British and Spanish military power, geography, and the Geopolitical Zeitgeist that is the diplomatic arena, one has a very good idea of what would happen.
For one, Spain would have to move quickly as to catch British forces in Gibraltar completely off guard and prevent them falling back to the rock. Such a move would likely to be unsuccessful, as a military build-up around La Linea and the rest of Cadiz Province would be a telltale sign. British would then retreat to the various caves, tunnels and bunkers that run right through the giant monolith. This would lead to a Guerrilla war which Spain would suffer heavy casualties and take months. Britain would then respond by blockading the Atlantic and creating a no-fly zone over Spain in order to suffocate Spain. Isolating Madrid via a Bombing Campaign on vital arterial trade routes into the city is highly unlikely due to the reality that international response would then be in Spain’s favour, but can’t be ruled out. However, Britain will most likely try to evade direct conflict as not to bring the rest of the EU to Spain’s side.
Other indirect actions could assist Britain. As mentioned before, Spain holds two cities on the African Peninsula, Ceuta and Melilla. It is a situation that has created animosity with Morocco ever since Spain withdrew from the rest of its territory in Africa. One could argue that certain elements in British circles could discreetly encourage Morocco to annexe the two cities with this military dispute. Even though Moroccan forces are themselves no match for Spain, this would stretch Spanish Forces and increase casualties and financial pain. With a crippling blockade, a Guerrilla war on the rock and invasion of Spanish holdings in Africa, Spain would be militarily and economically crippled. International opinion likewise would be strongly outraged by Spanish actions that they would be forced to sue for peace. A Status Quo Ante Bellum would be enforced, with Spain returning sovereignty to Britain. The status of Ceuta and Melilla would still be up in the air, but it would be a crippling humiliation to Spain regardless.
Much like the Falklands war, whoever is in office in Britain will be feted as a hero, probably winning a massive landslide at the next election, whereas discontent in Spain would force the resignation in disgrace of the Government and most likely a revolution, ushering in a new Spanish Republic (though the King of Spain is effectively a figurehead, he would be accused of being part of the system that destroyed Spanish prestige. Republicans would most likely seize on this, much as in Portugal in 1910 and Italy in 1946). Britain, under a wave of patriotic fervour, would themselves examine their weaknesses prior to the conflict, the result being the beefing up of British military power. Still, the ‘British Armada’ would be feted in contemporary mythology as bringing to their knees a Spanish Aggressor circumventing the will of an innocent people.
There is a twist. Depending on who is in power in Britain, once Spain has conquered the airport, the barracks and the town, the Government may lack the stomach for a fight. Even if Guerrilla British troops hole themselves in the rock’s many tunnels, they would only last a matter of months, perhaps even weeks due to lack of ammunition and provisions. Reconquering the rock would likewise prove to be problematic – unlike the Spanish, the nearest British Landmass would be the Isles of Scilly, effectively destroying the element of surprise. Also, considering that Labour considered handing the Falklands back before Thatcher won the 1979 election, and some elements of political discourse in the UK thinking it wouldn’t be worth the fight, Britain may well opt to surrender Gibraltar in return for the safe withdrawal of British personnel. Of course, this is an unlikely situation. Gibraltar is too valuable to Britain. Trade wise, it allows Britain a chokehold on Trans-Atlantic trade, giving them an economic incentive. Defence wise, it allows Britain a naval base in the Mediterranean, as well as a centre of communications, giving Britain a forward defence outpost. Therefore, Britain would not take lightly to losing Gibraltar.
Why there will be no war anytime soon.
All this just won’t happen though, and for one crucial reason – it would destroy Spain. As mentioned above, it would create a long period of political turmoil which would only be eclipsed in scope and magnitude by the Spanish Civil War. It is worth mentioning the dire economic status of Spain ever since the Global Financial Crisis of 2008. Ever since the Spanish property bubble burst, the nation’s economy has failed to rebound. Unemployment hovers around the 20-25% mark, with youth unemployment said to be as high as 50%. Spain just simply would not be able to afford to even start a war. If Spain were to divert national funds to the war effort instead of other, more crucial issues, they would be economically destroyed. If Britain blockaded Spain, they would most likely starve. The only other means of international connection are the borders with France and Portugal.
This, of course, is where Spain would begin to be isolated internationally. For one, Portugal has been allied to Britain (and England pre-1707) since 1386. In fact, the only reason Britain sided with Spain in the war of the Spanish Succession was to aid Portugal. Despite disputes such as the 1890 ultimatum over the colonisation of Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Portugal has proven to be a strong ally, providing support in WWI and WWII. Spain, however, does at present have an exceptional partnership with their neighbour, even going so far as putting in a joint bid for the 2018 FIFA World Cup and joint understanding in fighting wildfires common on the peninsula. The British-Portuguese Alliance has also been largely superseded by NATO of which Spain, Portugal and Britain are members. However, if two NATO members go to war, and one of them is Britain, NATO would most likely punish the aggressor. Spain would most likely be expelled from NATO, and Portugal and France would be obliged to embargo Spain. With France, despite historic animosity with England, both nations have been in an alliance (entente cordiale) since before the First World War. Both nations are highly reliant on cross-channel trade, and both sit on the UN Security Council, where they often vote in a similar pattern. Which raises another issue – Security Council resolutions. Unless Spain was to get the support of either Russia or China, any resolution would fail instantly without support from the 5 permanent members. Even in the extremely unlikely circumstance that they get the support of France and the US as well, Britain would just simply veto it.
The EU’s position would also come into question. Even with a proposed veto on Gibraltar’s status with the EU, a Spanish invasion would be considered so repulsive to European ideals that action will have to be taken. Though no formal expulsion mechanism from the EU exists as of yet, Article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union would no doubt be invoked. Spain would then be suspended from participation in certain significant European treaties and loss of significant voting rights. This could prove economically devastating both during and after the war. It would also lead to a rise of anti-western sentiment not seen since Falange rule. I have already mentioned the possibility of a nation-wide revolution. Other issues such as the collapse of law and order, chronic failure of the bureaucracy and instability which was commonplace across the Iberian peninsula during the late 1880’s-early 1940’s. Whilst a civil war on the scale of the Spanish Civil War is unlikely, internal disorder would be a certainty. It may also prove the catalyst for the end of Spain as we know it. Such an invasion would almost be universally opposed by Catalan and Basque separatists, whom even now have strong public support in their own territories for independence. This would galvanise their support, and in the ensuing power vacuum, allow new sovereign nations to emerge. Spain would be balkanised in a manner not seen since pre-Reconquista years. It would usher in an era where what was left of Spain would be the sick man of Europe.
We can all sleep safe at night knowing that war between Spain and Britain will never happen. Spain, with a moribund economy and an integral piece of the European chessboard, would not dare start a war with Britain over nationalistic pride knowing that they would lose. Furthermore, they would only destroy themselves. Even if they were able to conquer the rock, such an incursion would only lead to them being either bombed out or starved out. After all, you don’t pick a fight with someone stronger than you, and one that is battle hardened. That doesn’t mean the jingoism will end. Spain will always claim Gibraltar as Spanish, regardless of whether they have a legitimate claim or not. Likewise, Britain will always assert that Gibraltar is theirs, and the people of Gibraltar wish to remain British. What it does mean is that both sides accept that the status quo is still better in place than being challenged. After all, why would Spanish politicians risk creating the fertile breeding grounds that provided space for the rise of General Franco over a small bit of rock? If trying to conquer Gibraltar was unsuccessful in 1783, if Franco himself didn’t risk a war and effectively veto any Nazi invasion of Gibraltar, why would anyone want to tempt the fates today and try invading again? Likewise, even if there is the faintest of faint chances of war, British politicians like Lord Howard cannot beat the drums of war that no one on both sides wants to hear. Britain itself is tired of war and would rather not provoke a war. The fact is that both sides know where they stand with each other. Britain knows Spain’s case, though weak, is strongly backed, although they know war would be a disaster. Likewise Spain knows that Britain will not negotiate Gibraltarian sovereignty so long as the Gibraltarians choose to remain British. Of course, if war does happen, then someone either was scheming something completely reprehensible or made the stupidest of stupid mistakes. Either way, we know (at least we hope) that officials on both sides are well rounded and have the moral judgement not to allow any escalation of tensions to get that far.