The Provocations of the Admiralty and Brexit in Gibraltar

It is a historical constant that the Royal Navy (RN) resorts to provocations to try - and in many cases succeed - in disrupting negotiations on Gibraltar that occasionally take place between the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MAE) and the British Foreign Office (FCO).

What Spanish Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos defined in 2004 as "provocations from the Admiralty" occur when the RN considers that its "permanent" interests in Gibraltar may be affected.

At the beginning of World War II, the United Kingdom (UK) forcibly evacuated over 14,000 inhabitants of Gibraltar, considering them "useless mouths." This tragedy created a rift between the civilian population and the military. The British realized that the population was heavily influenced by Spanish culture, so they took radical measures to "Britishize" it. In 1945, the UK was confident at the United Nations, with Spain excluded. It included Gibraltar in the list of pending territories to be decolonized with the intention of granting it independence - endorsed by the UN and disregarding the Treaty of Utrecht - to keep the military base, as they would later do in Cyprus.

In the 1960s, discussions on Gibraltar's decolonization took place while Spain was already a UN member. The move backfired as Spain received support, among others, from the Soviet Union. During those times, having military bases in colonies was not well regarded, so they focused on building local nationalism and highlighting that they were in Gibraltar because that was the desire of the local population, whom they supported against the "enemy" (essential) Spain; of course, they omitted mentioning military interests. Thus, before the UN General Assembly, the UK presented itself as the "Lord Protector" of the population they imported to serve their military base.

The portrayal of Spain as an "enemy" began to be doubted when we entered the European Union, and the local population got used to going out in large numbers on weekends to enjoy their second homes, recreational areas, and large shopping centers in the surrounding region.

We must recognize that the feigned disappearance of British military interest in Gibraltar was a success. Paraphrasing Baudelaire, we can say that "the best trick the RN invented was to convince Spain that Gibraltar is no longer of military importance." If we add the UK's influence in NATO and the extensive practice of ideological subversion, the result is that our authorities have difficulties perceiving the reality of that foreign military base entrenched in a part of our territory and acting accordingly; but not only that, they also have difficulties perceiving the harm this colony does to Spain. This is the situation: enduring a military colony is bad enough, but contributing to its maintenance is even worse.

It seems that we are unable to distinguish between a commercial port and a naval base where they repair nuclear submarines; a supposed international airport that is an RAF military aerodrome and, to make matters worse, continuously and fraudulently uses the international airport of Malaga as if it were its auxiliary airport; a rock in which, besides the appeal of its panoramic views and wild monkeys, one can easily spot antennas for communications interception (COMINT) and electronic signals (ELINT); tunnels that, along with their historical interest, can be used to store ammunition like missiles, torpedoes, and even mines and bombs - not necessarily British - prohibited by UN conventions.

However, the game of "disappearing" the military interest of Gibraltar has its risks. In addition to being believed by some Spaniards (perhaps willing to do so), there may be Britons who approve the budgets, and this would be dangerous for the interests of the RN.

So much so that in 1972, a document - declassified in 2003 - from the British Committee of Chiefs of Defence Staff "concluded that Gibraltar is strategically important due to its dominant position at the entrance to the Mediterranean, a conveniently located base for naval and air operations in both the Eastern Atlantic and Western Mediterranean."

Despite their efforts and support in Spain, occasionally there have been attempts by Spain to get the UK to comply with what the UN determined in its numerous resolutions on Gibraltar: to negotiate with Spain the end of the colonial situation. It is on those rare occasions when "provocations from the Admiralty" materialize.

On January 27, 1999, a significant provocation occurred when, in an operation directed by RN commanders, the Gibraltar police seized the fishing vessel Piraña and its crew. Among other things, they managed to abort the first meeting between the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the local authority of Gibraltar, which had to assume the role assigned to it by their British commanders.

In September 2000, as a reaffirmation of "who is in charge here," and while the region protested the presence of the HMS Tireless submarine with its nuclear reactor damaged, an Anglo-Dutch amphibious force landed on the Rock, emulating the force that occupied it in 1704 on behalf of the Archduke Charles, pretender to the Spanish Throne.

Between July 2000 and July 2001, negotiations on Gibraltar's joint sovereignty took place. On this occasion, there was no need for provocations from the RN because it was Spain's decision that aborted the negotiation process.

In February 2002, Royal Marines made a landing on La Línea's Poniente Beach, which was initially planned for the Levante isthmus, illegally occupied. What was programmed as a display of arrogance turned into a display of incompetence.

It was on July 9, 2004, with another entry of the HMS Tireless, when Moratinos said, "Politically, the British Admiralty continues to provoke repeatedly."

In November 2005, probably to reaffirm the RN's authority and disrupt the negotiation process during the peak of the new environment created by the Dialogue Forum, the Commander British Forces (CBF) Gibraltar stated that "nuclear submarines will always be welcome in Gibraltar, and if it were necessary to make nuclear repairs, we would do it."

In July 2013, while negotiations were underway between the MAE and the FCO on fishing in the waters surrounding Gibraltar, the local authority of the Rock assumed - as happened with the seizure of the Piraña - the anchoring of 70 concrete blocks in the isthmus' waters. Once again, the RN managed to disrupt the negotiations.

Despite statements by British military authorities about the base's importance to avoid unwanted effects within their own ranks, the activity at the base (especially the entries of warships) did not stop decreasing from 2006 onward, mainly due to the apparent reduction in the RN's units and its role in the seas; this continued until 2012. From then on, activity began to increase again, but with auxiliary and small ships, not forgetting the nuclear submarines.

Little by little, they increased their investments to modernize and expand the facilities, so that by 2018, the renovation of those dedicated to communications interception and electronic signals was visible. In this same blog ("El supuesto mito de Gibraltar," June 1, 2022), you can find a list - which continues to grow - of the most significant improvements.

Brexit has dealt a severe blow to the concept of a "low-cost" naval base that Gibraltar maintains, naturally at the cost of a cosmic level of flexibility from our authorities and the abundance of support they have in Spain from military and civilian levels, politicians, diplomats, businesses, financiers, journalists, union members, teachers, and so on.

In the blog "Gibraltar y su dependencia de España" (Gibraltar and Its Dependency on Spain), published on September 1, 2022, you can see to what extent Gibraltar's economy will be affected if the UK does not reach an agreement with the EU regarding the future of its colony, with serious consequences for the military base.

But one thing is the needs of the local population and quite another are the demands of the military, who reject being subject to the requirements imposed by European legislation, especially regarding the Schengen Agreement. The result is that this military problem, combined with the issue of pensions for Spanish workers, environmental regulations, tax harmonization, and control of the port (naval base) and airport (RAF military aerodrome), has led the negotiations to a dead-end, which is a cause for great concern among the local population and has opened a rift between them and the military as has not been seen since the evacuation of the "useless mouths" in 1940.

This rift cannot be allowed, as if the affection of the local population is lost, the situation of the military could become very uncomfortable, and furthermore, the argument of being "protectors of the population," with which they present themselves to the international community, would disappear.

This is the context when, in a "who's in charge here" manner, conscious of the likely absence of practical reactions from Spain, a series of provocations by the RN occur in rapid succession. On June 19, 2023, 15 British parliamentarians (dressed in military uniforms) took a ride on board two patrol boats of the Gibraltar Squadron, from the RN, through the waters surrounding the Rock. On June 28, 2023, the CBF Gibraltar (a Commodore of the RN) inaugurated a terminal for military aircraft passengers built on the isthmus; he stated that this "investment is a very clear demonstration of British sovereignty over Gibraltar." On July 3, 2023, the colonial governor (a Vice Admiral of the RN) took a ride through the waters surrounding Gibraltar on a boat of the Squadron, presenting it as a "Sovereignty Patrol." On July 4, 2023, a local authority, in the presence of the colonial governor, turned a tribute to General Sikorski into an act of national claim on the 80th anniversary of his death when his plane crashed into the sea taking off from Gibraltar.

With these provocations, it should not be an attempt to disrupt negotiations that, apparently, are already considered failed precisely because of the British military. Perhaps they are trying to provoke a Spanish reaction that would appear, to the local population, as if Spain caused the negotiations to fail by not accepting the alleged British sovereignty over the isthmus and the waters surrounding Gibraltar.

What has been said is consistent with their actions and with the call to Spain not to face the feelings of the local population by rejecting the agreement being negotiated and not hindering the smooth transit through the frontier (which is what hurts them). In other words, if Spain rejects the agreement and the Gibraltarians suffer the consequences, it will not be the fault of the military. Thus, the rift that is opening between the local population and the military - something unprecedented since 1940 - will close, and at the same time, a rift between that population and Spain will open and consolidate.