over the Rock:



Constitutional Reform on the Horizon in Gibraltar
by Jeremy Hammond

The Rock stands 1400 feet high. A stubborn symbol of the last vestiges of the British empire, it stands guard over the Strait of Gibraltar, boxed in and watched constantly by the covetous eyes of Spain. It may seem strange that a place just over six square kilometers in area has attracted so much attention over the years. But attract it Gibraltar has. This fortified city of 27,100 on the tip of the Iberian Peninsula is a curious place. The history of "the Rock" is the very embodiment of military significance, a tale of bitter dispute and petty wrangling that only a strategic garrison could warrant. Today the last colony in Europe attracts tourists from across Europe, is home to a growing number of financial service companies, and is still a hotbed of political bantering.

Britain took control of the Rock in 1704, when it was seized by an Anglo-Dutch fleet under Admiral Rooke. In 1713 the Treaty of Utrecht, signed by Britain and Spain, ceded the Rock to Britain in perpetuity. But this agreement did nothing to prevented Spanish claims to sovereignty. Spain has campaigned vigorously for territorial control of Gibraltar over the years. They closed the land frontier and ceased communications by sea and air in 1969, and maintained this blockade for sixteen years. The border was reopened in 1985 following on from the Lisbon declaration , intended to overcome the differences between the two nations on Gibraltar, was agreed to by Britain and Spain in 1980.

Hassles at the border between Spain and Gibraltar are frequent, and queues for vehicles can vary from a few minutes to several hours long.

Spain continues to deny the existence of Gibraltar territorial waters, Gibraltarians' right to vote for an MEP (Member of European Parliament), and also use of the international telephone code (350), while maintaining severe restrictions on flights and marine communications.

In May 1997 the Gibraltar Chronicle reported that Abel Matutes, Spanish Foreign Minister, repeated the country's suggestion for joint-sovereignty leading to return of the Rock to Spain in fifty years. The Spanish have also attempted to use the Hong Kong hand-over to their advantage in lobbying for the return of Gibraltar to their hands. Hong Kong's transition would be a model, Spain maintained, for the hand-over of Gibraltar.

The topic of Anglo-Spanish discord figures prominently in day to day life on the Rock, just as faithful pride in a history of British heritage lives on in locals' minds. But at the heart of the issue is not how the people Gibraltar feel about their mother country, but how much Gibraltar means to the United Kingdom. The British have given the people of Gibraltar their assurance that they will not allow them to pass under the sovereignty of another state against their democratically expressed wishes. A referendum in 1967 in which over ninety-five percent of voters took part gave the Gibraltarians' overwhelming response on the question of those wishes: 12,138 for England, 44 for Spain.

Britain has consistently protested Spain's denial of Gibraltar's EU rights, a sign that Her Majesty's Government seems more than willing to defend the interests of its most disputed dependency. Fears have emerged, though, that Spain may be able to gather enough support for its claim to sovereignty in the EU to push successfully accomplish its agenda. As Gibraltar has no direct representation in the European Parliament, its self interests may be obscured by the larger powers.

Traditionally, Gibraltar has been one of Whitehall's more valuable assets. As the gateway between the European and African continent and watch-tower for the entrance to the Mediterranean sea, its strategic importance was unparalleled. An intricate network of tunnels and bunkers running through the Rock remain as a symbol of its military might, although the military presence has dwindled to a fraction of what it was.

Gibraltar is a testament to the notion that a strategic geographic location spins off long-term value to its inhabitants. Even amongst its colonial peers the Rock enjoys special status. Most of the citizens of the eleven inhabited British Dependent Territories do not possess the right of abode in the United Kingdom. There are, however, two exceptions to this rule: the Falkland Islands and Gibraltar. The Falkland Islands received their concession after the Falklands war, amid tributes to their staunch patriotism; Gibraltar for more complex reasons.

Citizenship of the British Dependent Territories is a status that dates from January 1, 1983. That was the day the British Nationality Act (1981) came into effect, an act intended to create a clear theory of British nationality, and reduce the disparity between citizenship and immigration policy. Gibraltar did have a compelling case for the right of abode due to its status within the European Community.

The Rock has been a part of the EC since 1973, and its people are therefore been entitled to the right to live and work in most European countries. But by their status as one of the British dependent territories, whose citizens world-wide were to be denied the right of abode in Britain by the British Nationality Act of 1981, Gibraltarians would have been kept out of their mother country while other Europeans were free to enter. It would have been an embarrassing inconsistency if uncorrected since when Spain entered the EU in 1986, Gibraltarians were welcome to live in Spain but not in the United Kingdom. By an amendment to the British Nationality Bill in 1981, this discrepancy in British policy was erased, and Gibraltarians were given the right of abode in the UK.

Advocates of the amendment expounded the Gibraltarians' desire to remain British, and their lasting loyalty through Spanish torment and numerous sieges (the longest of which, the Great Siege, lasted three years, seven months, twelve days). A number of speeches were made in opposition to the proposal in British Parliament. Lord Soames said "If your Lordships were to accept this amendment, we should open the way to vigorous pleas for similar treatment from other Dependent Territories." The threat of having to absorb millions of Hong Kong citizens was too great to warrant giving the right of abode to the rest of the territories. Lord Carver spoke on the subject, saying "The fact remains that if all those except Hong Kong were granted the same status as Gibraltar, for instance, it could not conceivably be said to produce an immigration problem in this country. Surely what is happening is that it is the special case of Hong Kong which is determining the attitude of the Government in this Bill to Gibraltar and other dependencies."

Gibraltar and the Falklands have not presented an immigration problem in Britain, and with Hong Kong out of the way the massive influx that the British feared will never take place. Today only 180,000 people - not discounting expatriate residents - are citizens of the British Dependent Territories world-wide, yet the Falklands and the Rock are the only ones that possess the right of abode. Gibraltar has received an amount of support, particularly diplomatic support from the United Kingdom, that is inconsistent with what the British give their other dependencies.

Now Gibraltar is seeking to redefine that already special relationship. Concerned about the future - specifically that the people's wishes to remain out of Spanish hands will not be honoured - Gibraltar's government has made moves to change the state of its dependency. The government wants to institute constitutional reforms that would make Gibraltar "a sovereign British territory with close political and constitutional links with the United Kingdom of a modern, non-colonial nature" according to Chief Minister Peter Caruana's statement in June 1997 at a conference on constitutional reform. He pointed to an overhaul of Gibraltar's domestic powers and responsibilities, stating that "the whole issue of defined and non-defined domestic matters would be unscrambled and reversed. UK's responsibilities would be defined." To follow such a path would require care, though; after a recent all-party delegation from the House of Lords visited the Rock, they reminded the government that amicable dialogue with Spain would be necessary if Gibraltar was to hold a formal constitutional conference, and that any constitutional reform would have to be carefully drafted to avoid Spain challenging it in the European Court of Justice.

The Gibraltar Chronicle reported that Mr. Caruana's intention was to seek a status like that of a Crown Dependency, such as the Channel Islands, rather than remain a dependent territory. The Home Office would then take over responsibility from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office within the British Government, and the governor would become a lieutenant governor, without reserve powers.

The Channel Islands enjoy the umbrella of British protection, but have their own legal systems and governments. The islands are part of the EEC, however are only required to abide by certain tariffs and controls. Guernsey, for example, has the right to create its own legislation for taxation and solely domestic matters. Guernsey Islanders' rights to settle elsewhere in the community are restricted, although they are free to settle for employment in Britain. Further provisions allow for a form of reciprocity, where British and other Community citizens who wish may settle to work in Guernsey. Such a model would presumably be instituted in Gibraltar. From an overseas investor's standpoint, the unfolding story of Gibraltar's constitutional reform will be watched closely and cautiously.

Efforts to change the nature of its status as a dependent territory may yet challenge the stability of the Rock. Its future, perched high atop the peak, could be clouded by the foreign powers bickering below.

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