Dec 19 - Why Does Spanish Border Pressure Continue? UK Academic Explores Answers In Exclusive Article For YGTV

In late July of this year, Spain imposed a regime of heightened and arbitrary searches and delays at the Gibraltar frontier.  Most commentators, including myself, predicted that the restrictions would not be imposed for long.  As 2013 draws to a close, why then do we still see considerable disruption at the frontier?

By Dr. Chris Grocott

It seems likely that the decision to intensify the frontier customs checks was originally a diversionary tactic on the part of the Partido Popular government.  In July, the government’s struggle with the economy and unemployment was on-going (and still is for that matter), whilst reports of financial impropriety served to undermine key members of the cabinet.  Crucial too, the press silly season seemed to promise little respite as news editors groped around for copy.  Bringing the issue of Gibraltar centre stage was no doubt designed to deflect some attention away from the PP’s deficiencies and at the same time allowed the government to represent itself as forthright.  The tactic was successful.  Newspapers were filled with articles on Gibraltar, both in Spain and Britain.  Around the world Radio and TV programmes picked up the story too.

As August passed, the Spanish Government’s original plan may well have been to dial-down the pressure on the Gibraltar frontier.  After all, as the mayor of La Linea pointed out, the disruption at the frontier was not only having a negative effect on Gibraltarians but also on the economy of Gibraltar’s hinterland.  But given that the tensions are on-going, it is reasonable to assume that the issue has taken on a life of its own.  In the days of Franco it was easy enough to run and to stop protests like turning a tap.  This is not a luxury available to the current government.  Various groups in Spain and in the Spanish media have taken an interest in the re-energised dispute.  Having made a number of arguments for the re-intensification of the disruption at the Gibraltar frontier, the Spanish government may find that even if it wants to it may have trouble getting away from its current policy.

The sovereignty dispute over Gibraltar fires the imagination of the nationalist right in Spain.  However, there is good reason to believe that, framed as it is at the moment, the subject of Gibraltar may have broader appeal.  One of the central premises underpinning the Spanish government’s policy at the frontier is the accusation that Gibraltar is a centre of smuggling and tax evasion and as such harmful to the Spanish economy.  By emphasising this, the Spanish government is likely to find support for its policies on the left amongst those who would not normally have sympathy for PP politics.  After all, in Britain the political left has emphasised this issue.  The Guardian has been lukewarm to Gibraltar’s cause, whilst The Mirror launched a ‘Hand Gibraltar Back’ campaign which it argued would target ex-pat ‘tax exiles, Tory postal voters, [and] winter fuel payment claimants’.  Spain is suffering from massive unemployment and a government that is cutting services as part of a programme of fiscal austerity.  Claims that Gibraltar is adding to the economic problems of Spain are likely to be better received than hitherto.  Whilst anyone who has taken the time to look at the effect of Gibraltar on the economy of southern Spain can see that its presence is beneficial, in hard times rational arguments often fall on deaf ears. 

The current dispute may well be appealing to a broader constituency than has been the case in the past.  But it should not be forgotten that the issue of sovereignty does move a vocal minority.  Nationalism is a powerful force.  In Spain, this manifests itself in the nationalist and regionalist movements of places such as Catalonia and the Basque Country.  And naturally it manifests itself in the reactionary response of those who wish to see Madrid as the centrifugal force in the Spanish nation-state.  Because of this, it is not just public meetings held by Gibraltar’s Chief Minister that have been disrupted.  In September, so too was a Catalonia National Day meeting of Catalan Government representatives at the Blanquerna Cultural Center in Madrid (and other such meetings have been targeted too).  The PP condemned the attack, but such incidents underscore the fact that even if the PP wants to take a more nuanced view on the Gibraltar dispute then this will be received with strong protest from Spanish nationalists.  Indeed, putting pressure on Gibraltar may do much to reassure the far right.

In sum, there is probably broader support in Spain for the intensification of the border checks than there has been in the past. If the Spanish Government reduces these checks, it will need to demonstrate that it is doing so because either the UK or Gibraltar has responded to its criticisms.  Nevertheless, the UK is standing by its refusal to discuss sovereignty.  The Government of Gibraltar has undertaken a number of steps in the past decade to improve transparency on tax matters and to co-operate with Spain on smuggling.  Nevertheless, it is not particularly in the interests of the Spanish Government to recognise this.

The Spanish Government could have extricated itself from the current situation if the European Union had found the frontier checks to be disproportionate and therefore illegal.  However, the refusal of the EU to do so has left the Spanish Government in a difficult situation.  It cannot now scale-back its frontier checks without appearing to have conceded that it acted unfairly in the first place.  No beleaguered government wants to lose face on an issue which sections of its core support feels strongly upon and upon which it has placed significant emphasis.  The PP will find it difficult to step-back from the current dispute without losing support from its own supporters and conceding considerable political capital to its opponents.  And so, in the New Year, Gibraltarians may not have much to look forward to when it comes to crossing the frontier.

Dr. Chris Grocott is a Lecturer in Management and Economic History at the University of Leicester.  He has studied Gibraltar for over fifteen years.  His latest book (with Dr. Gareth Stockey) is Gibraltar: A Modern History (University of Wales Press, 2012).