999 Red Balloons Striving For National Identity


Gibraltar is celebrating its National Day today. Many happy returns.

Hang on a minute. A National Day surely would suggest a nation. Is Gibraltar a nation all of a sudden?

Wikipedia states that “Gibraltar is a British overseas territory located near the southernmost tip of the Iberian Peninsula overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar. The territory shares a border with Spain to the north. Gibraltar has historically been an important base for the British Armed Forces and is the site of a Royal Navy base.” Hmm, no nation there. But perhaps Wikipedia gets it wrong.

Britain itself does not claim nation status for Gibraltar either. Instead, a British overseas territory is claimed. So, where does this Gibraltar National Day have its origins?

September 10th, 1967, a referendum was held in which Gibraltar’s voters were asked whether they wished to either remain under British sovereignty, with institutions of self-government, or pass under Spanish sovereignty. The vote resulted overwhelmingly in favour of continuance of British sovereignty, with 12,138 to 44 votes rejecting the Spanish sovereignty option. Well, what had they thought? But does that make an overseas territory into a nation, all of a sudden?

There is evidence of human habitation in Gibraltar as early as by the Neanderthals, an extinct species of the Homo genus. The first historical people known to have settled there were the Phoenicians around 950 BC (again, the Phoenicians. Perhaps they would have a valid point in claiming Gibraltar, Málaga, Melilla and half of southern Spain).

More settlements were later established by the Carthaginians and Romans. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, Gibraltar came briefly under the control of the Vandals, and later formed part of the Visigothic Kingdom of Hispania until its collapse due to the Moorish conquest in 711 AD.

The first permanent settlement was built by the Almohad Sultan Abd al-Mu’min, who ordered the construction of a fortification on the Rock, the remains of which are still present. Gibraltar later became part of the Kingdom of Granada until 1309, when it was briefly occupied by Castilian troops. In 1333, it was conquered by the Marinids who had invaded Moorish Spain. The Marinids ceded Gibraltar to the Kingdom of Granada in 1374. Finally, it was re-conquered definitively by the Duke of Medina Sidonia in 1462, ending 750 years of Moorish control.

In the initial years under Medina Sidonia, Gibraltar was granted sovereignty as a home to a population of exiled Sephardic Jews. Pedro de Herrera, a Jewish converso from Córdoba who had led the conquest of Gibraltar, led a group of 4,000+ Jews from Córdoba and Seville to establish themselves in the town. A community was built and a garrison established to defend the peninsula. However, this lasted only for three years. In 1476, the Duke of Medina Sidonia realigned with the Spanish Crown; the Sefardim were then forced back to Córdoba and the Spanish Inquisition.

In 1501 Gibraltar passed under the hands of the Spanish Crown, which had been established in 1479. Gibraltar was granted its coat of arms by a Royal Warrant passed in Toledo by Queen Isabel of Castile in 1501. Does a coat of arms warrant nation status?

The naval Battle of Gibraltar took place in 1607 during the Eighty Years’ War when a Dutch fleet surprised and engaged a Spanish fleet anchored at the Bay of Gibraltar. During the four-hour action, the entire Spanish fleet was destroyed. That’s 400 years ago this year. Is that why the Spanish looked a bit blemished, earlier this year?

During the War of the Spanish Succession, British and Dutch troops, allies of Archduke Charles, the Austrian pretender to the Spanish Crown, formed a confederate fleet and attacked various towns on the southern coast of Spain. On August 4th, 1704, the confederate fleet, commanded by Admiral George Rooke assisted by Field Marshal Prince George of Hesse-Darmstadt comprising some 1,800 Dutch and British marines captured the town of Gibraltar and claimed it in the name of the Archduke Charles. Terms of surrender were agreed upon, after which much of the population chose to leave Gibraltar peacefully.

Franco-Spanish troops failed to retake the town, and British sovereignty over Gibraltar was subsequently recognized by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, which ended the war. Spain ceded Gibraltar and Menorca to the United Kingdom, which has retained sovereignty over the former ever since, despite all attempts by Spain to recapture it.

If all of that makes Gibraltar a nation, what about Menorca? Is Menorca a nation? Is Menorca still a British overseas territory? Last time I was in Menorca I was on Spanish territory. What am I missing here?

Gibraltar subsequently became an important naval base for the British Royal Navy and played an important part in the Battle of Trafalgar. Its strategic value increased with the opening of the Suez Canal, as it controlled the important sea route between the UK and colonies such as India and Australia. During World War II, the civilian residents of Gibraltar were evacuated, and the Rock was turned into a fortress. An airfield was built over the civilian racecourse. Guns on Gibraltar controlled the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea. Plans by Nazi Germany to capture the Rock were frustrated by Spain’s reluctance to allow the German Army onto Spanish soil.


In the 1950s, Spain, then under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, renewed its claim to sovereignty over Gibraltar, sparked in part by the visit of Queen Elizabeth II in 1954 to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the Rock’s capture. For the next thirty years, Spain restricted movement between Gibraltar and Spain, in application of one of the articles of the Utrecht Treaty. The border with Spain was partially reopened in 1982, and fully reopened in 1985 after Spain’s accession into the European Community. Joint talks on the future of the Rock held between Spain and the UK have occurred since the late 1980s, with various proposals for joint sovereignty discussed. The question of Gibraltar continues to affect Anglo-Spanish relations.

Queen Elizabeth II refrained from attending the celebrations in Gibraltar in 2004 on occasion of the 300th anniversary of the capture of Gibraltar. Instead, UK Defense Minister Geoff Hoon’s attendance was scoffed at by the Spanish as ‘insensitive’.

2006 saw representatives of the UK, Gibraltar and Spain conclude talks in Córdoba, Spain, a landmark agreement on a range of cross-cutting issues affecting the Rock and the Campo de Gibraltar removing many of the restrictions imposed by Spain. This agreement resolved a number of long standing issues; improved flow of traffic at the frontier, use of the airport by other carriers, recognition of the 350 telephone code and the settlement of the long-running dispute regarding the pensions of former Spanish workers in Gibraltar, who lost their jobs when Spain closed its border in 1969.

Last week, British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, was in Madrid for talks with Spain’s Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero during a meeting at the Moncloa Palace. One might speculate that Gibraltar was one of the issues on the agenda. No statement was issued at the end of Miliband’s visit before the Foreign Secretary travelled to the EU Foreign Ministers meeting in Portugal.

I agree that it won’t be easy to resolve the Gibraltar issue. Let’s all agree that the Gibraltarians have all the rights in the world to celebrate whatever. A National Day today may be wrong in semantics, but why not strive for a nation, if that is what is wanted.

I suggest that Gibraltar could become Gibraltarian one day, even a nation if that is what is wanted. As part of the European Union, it should be possible to give independence to Gibraltar and perhaps other European places of contention as well, be the conflict of ethnical or historical or political origins. The Basque country, Corsica, Cyprus, Kaliningrad, Kosovo, Kurdistan and a handful more come to my mind immediately.

All of these, including Gibraltar, could become sovereign, self-governed Member States of the European Union, a bit like Andorra or Liechtenstein. Perhaps the status of Free Port would help Gibraltar and Kaliningrad to ease the transition.

Then we would all have reason to celebrate. And the world might become a safer place.


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