The Strait of Gibraltar is the entry point into the Mediterranean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean. It is bordered by the continents of Africa and Europe, and the countries of Morocco, Spain, the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar, and the Spanish exclave of Ceuta
The Straits of Gibraltar (2018 Lisbon/Fez TAP flight)

Gibraltar, a British Overseas Territory, located at the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula. It was captured in 1704 during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714). The Spanish Crown formally ceded the territory in perpetuity to the British Crown in 1713 through the Treaty of Utrecht.

In that treaty, Spain ceded to Great Britain “the full and entire propriety of the town and castle of Gibraltar, together with the port, fortifications, and forts thereunto belonging … for ever, without any exception or impediment whatsoever.”

Spain later attempted to recapture the territory during the thirteenth siege (1727) and the Great Siege (1779–1783). British sovereignty over Gibraltar was confirmed in later treaties signed in Seville (1729) and the Treaty of Paris (1783). Gibraltar is often used as an example of a pene -exclave. More information about exclaves is available here.

View of the Rock from Spain

The status of Gibraltar is a point of contention between Spain and the United Kingdom. The land border is 1200 metres long and one of the shortest in the world. In 1910 the British built a fence which according to them was 1 meter inside their part of the neutral territory. The Spanish later contested it was actually 2 meter inside their territory. There is disagreement about where the border should be with the British arguing that their ownership of the 800 m strip of the isthmus is based on the initial position of border forts and de facto ownership. The northern half of the neutral territory was also taken over by Spain in the 1960s, during dictator Francisco Franco’s regime, and now forms an integral part of the Spanish municipality of La Línea de la Concepción. Between 1969 and 1982 the border was closed by Franco, in 1982 local pedestrians were allowed to cross whilst in 1985 the border was opened to vehicular traffic as well. Nowadays 12000 citizens commute to work in Gibraltar each day.

ES/UK Border Crossing 1996

The United Nations considers to be a Non-Self-Governing Territory administered by the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The United Kingdom believes that Gibraltar is an independent territory, recognised by the United Nations, and that Gibraltar enjoys the individual and collective rights that are set out in the 2006 constitution and the right of self-determination. Spain contrastingly, sees Gibraltar as a colony of the UK with only the UK empowered to discuss Gibraltar matters on the international scene.

The following incident shows the competing views of legitimacy and territorial oversight between the 3 parties.

Operation Flavius took place in March 1988, when SAS soldiers shot dead 3 suspected IRA terrorists in Gibraltar. All 3 were later discovered to be unarmed and no bomb was found (although a second linked car was discovered in Marbella Spain with explosives). Whereas the British and Gibraltar authorities deemed the killings lawful, Spain and the European Court of Human Rights in 1995 saw the deaths as illegitimate. The events were subject to a documentary “Death on the Rock” which can be viewed here.

The crossing the land border between Gibraltar and Spain is subject to checks as both the United Kingdom and Gibraltar are not part of the Schengen zone. The airport is a military area where civilian aircraft are permitted to operate. Spain claims the airfield is occupied illegally by the UK. The UK claims its sovereignty extends over the isthmus area on which the airfield is built. The UK also claims a three-mile limit in the territorial waters around Gibraltar whereas Spain claims maritime rights to all areas except inside the ports on Gibraltar. UK claims of incursions of Spanish vessels into Gibraltar territorial waters are considered by Spain to reflect routine activity of Spanish ships in their own waters.

View of the ES/UK border and the contested airport runway. Note that it is necessary to cross the runway to reach the border.

In 2015 the UK reaffirmed its claim to sovereignty, that Gibraltar had its right to self-determination set out in the 2006 constitution and that the UK would not enter into any sovereignty discussions unless Gibraltar agreed and further that the UK was committed to safeguarding Gibraltar, its people and its economy. The UK claimed sovereignty over land extended over the sea to a limit of three miles or to the median line under the UN convention on the Law of the Sea. Any discussion must include Gibraltar as their constitution gave them sole powers over many issues. Gibraltar’s position has been consistently against any encroachment by Spain on its independence. Both countries agree that any change in Gibraltars status must be agreed by Gibraltarians ( who consistently through referendums vote for the status quo). Spain in contrast continues to claim its sovereignty.. Brexit has added another dimension where Gibraltar voted overwhelmingly to remain within the EU whilst the UK narrowly did not.

Date of Visit: August 1996

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