Countries, Decolonization, Security & Defense

Interview with Sir Graham: Gibraltar, Brexit and Territorial Dispute

Last week, I had the honour of meeting Sir Graham Watson, former MEP, and ask him questions about Gibraltar a few days after the Brexit had been announced. I also had the opportunity to ask him about the dispute with Spain, a territorial disagreement which is far from being resolved. You will find some of what the former leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) Group in the European Parliament shared with me during the interview below, in italic. I have tried to complement his arguments with others found in the press and provide additional background information when deemed necessary.

Sir Graham, former MEP for South England between 1994 and 2014, was appointed in October 2014 by HM Government of Gibraltar to lead “the lobbying activities of the Government in the EU capital which includes advising and guiding the Government in connection with the implementation of strategies for the promotion of Gibraltar’s interests within the European Union.” The Representation Office of Gibraltar to the European Union was opened on 27 May 2015, thus confirming Gibraltar’s eagerness to further participate in the EU decision making.

Gibraltar joined the EU (the EEC at the time) alongside the United Kingdom, of which it is an overseas territory, in 1973.

In Gibraltar, EU treaties apply, as outlined in Article 355(3) of the Consolidated Version of the Treaty On the Functioning of the European Union, but VAT, customs rules and excise rules do not.

Although Gibraltarians are obliged to follow EU directives, they had no say in it until 2004, after which Gibraltar was added to the South West England constituency for European Parliament elections. Gibraltar was considered by the UK to be too small to have its own MEP.

Amidst the results of the EU referendum, Gibraltar has made it back to the headlines. The Rock’s future would be uncertain if it had to leave the EU along with the UK, but Spain insistence on getting the territory back to Spain is increasing tension in the region.

Can the dispute between the UK and Spain about Gibraltar be considered as a frozen conflict?

“It cannot really be considered as being frozen because it is alive. There are daily incursions of Spanish vessels and of the police into Gibraltar territorial waters. Spain justifies this by invoking the preservation and environmental zone whose responsibility was given to them by the European Commission. Of course, no shots are being fired, but there are frictions every day. The issue could then be assessed as frozen conflict, with melting edges.”

Sir Graham was referring to the Estrecho Oriental a 69-square-mile marine conservation area site which englobes “all but one small segment of the British zone –  two square miles in the north-western corner.”

Why is it that Spain has relentlessly tried to regain control of Gibraltar since they lost it and the Treaty of Utrecht was signed in 1713?

The Peace of Utrecht, or the Treaties or Utrecht, were signed in 1713 between France and other European powers, and between Spain and other nations. They marked the end of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714).  Spain, among others, lost Gibraltar and Minorca to Britain.

Sir Graham explained Continue reading


Ceuta And Melilla: Another entry door into Europe

The migration wave coming from Africa and reaching Europe makes the headlines everyday. This migration patterns shows the failure of the West’s deployment in Northern Africa. The resurgence of crises in Congo, Mali, Burundi and so forth also reinforce the idea that we still live in a divided world. And those who suffer are not to come to Europe because they do not belong. And what better way to mark this divide that with a wall? There are many examples of such infrastructures which try to keep migrants away from a better life; walls mark the border between Mexico and the US, between North and South Korea, Jerusalem and the West Bank, India and Bangladesh, in Cyprus, etc.

But did you know that a wall prevented Africans from accessing two cities located on the continent? What I am referring to here are the Spanish exclaves located on the opposite side of the Mediterranean of the mainland. These cities are called Ceuta and Melilla and are situated on the Moroccan coast. Ceuta is right on the other side of the Gibraltar strait, while Melilla is further East.Ceuta and Melilla

Morocco vs. Spain

Technically speaking, the two cities are on African soil, but belong to Spain. The local currency is euro. Melilla is a semi-autonomous city, governed by a mayor-president. For that reason, it is part of the EU. And because those two cities are EU outposts outside of Europe, they offer the safest alternatives to reaching the Old Continent for migrants coming from all over Africa (mainly sub-saharian). Every year, thousands of migrants risk their lives in the hope of crossing the walls which separate the European enclaves from Morocco.

Most surprisingly, Morocco is adding difficulties to the migrants’ quest. It is eyebrow-raising because Morocco does not recognize Spain’s sovereignty over these two cities for the reason that they are in Morocco and thus historically belong to them. Spain, on the other hand, claims that Spanish presence dates back to before Morocco became a sovereign and nation-state, thus invoking the historical precedent rather than geographical considerations. In this case, and like in many other when in comes to overseas territories, organizing a referendum to consult the local populations would be pointless. Take the case of Mayotte which was previously discussed in an article: who would choose to be attached to the Comoros when you can remain French? The two options do not offer the same opportunities. For that reason, self-determination is not invoked by Morocco. In this case, territorial integrity is, just like Spain does against the UK for Gibraltar.

The great walls 

Going back to those walls, Ceuta is surrounded by 20km of wires while Melilla is separated by 3 layers of fences over 10 km. Guarded 24/7, those borders can be deadly for whoever tries to overpass them. They, however, do not defeat everybody, and hundred of migrants still manage to make it to Spain (4 354 in 2013). If not immediately caught by the Guardia Civil or the Moroccan police, they can no longer be ‘pushed back’ to Morocco, as stated under European law. If sent back to Morocco, migrants are often in bad shape and still undesired illegal immigrants in Morocco.

Walls were not walls before the 1990s when they were reinforced. Before then, Spanish exclaves and Morocco were difficult to delineate, and inhabitants from both communities walk freely across borders.The wall of Melilla

The Spanish-Moroccan borders are also the object of other types of trafficking, from both times this time. The Spanish enclaves are actually exempt of taxes, thus making good much cheaper than in mainland Europe, and mostly accessible for the Moroccans. The latter thus buy European foods and items from the harbour area at the border between the two countries, and sell them on the Moroccan side. Local authorities have attempted to put an end to this trade by banning vehicles from entering the warehouses, turning the merchants into ‘human mules’ as some carry up to 100kg in duty free goods.

Another problem of these exclaves are the Moroccan shanty towns. In Ceuta specifically, the shanty town “Principe Alfonso” is a no-go zone, and is considered as Spain’s most dangerous area. There, Spanish authorities have no rights. Illegal trafficking and terror do. There is no future for the local inhabitants. They are not Spaniards and they do not live in Morocco. They are nothing. The neighbourhood is also recognized as a jihadist recruitment center.

What now?

Problems seem to pile up in the two exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. Illegal immigration, violence, human rights abuse, sovereignty dispute, poverty, despair… Nothing is changing other than the reinforcement of the borders to keep Spain out of reach of the migrants.

The best way to address the issue is to understand that Africa is in a dire situation, and that, even though Europe is not the paradise, it is still better than most countries from which migrants leave. Yes, migrants are illegal, but no, this does not justify that violence.