The Squabble That Never Ends: Britain and Spain Duel Over Gibraltar

May 11, 2014

One recent morning, a mile-long line of cars waited to cross the international border separating Spain from Britain’s Rock of Gibraltar. Spanish border guards were stopping every car, resulting in long lines that could take up to six hours to cross.

Spain said it was checking for tobacco smuggling across the international border. But these increased checks were Spain’s retaliation in a spat over fishing rights and access to nearby waters, said Brian Reyes, news editor at the local newspaper, the Gibraltar Chronicle.

“Fishing with nets is illegal in Gibraltar waters. The Gibraltar government enforced that law — to the anger of Spanish fishermen,” Reyes explained. “Britain claims three miles of water around the rock, and Spain says Gibraltar has no waters. That’s the key to this issue. It’s not about fishing — it’s about jurisdiction.”

And so it goes at this iconic spot where legend says that Hercules separated the continents, Europe from Africa.

In early April, Britain and Spain summoned one another’s ambassadors over the incursion of a Spanish research vessel into the waters off Gibraltar. Rival navies face off almost weekly — though no shots have been fired for more than 300 years.

Still, the hostility on this border reinforces Gibraltarians’ British identity. The first thing you see when you cross the border into Gibraltar is a typically British red phone booth, albeit next to a palm tree. The small peninsula is home to dozens of British pubs.

“We have your typical Sunday Roast with Yorkshire pudding, cauliflower cheese, vegetables,” said Danielle Pratt, a waitress at the Gibraltar Arms pub, who rattled off the menu of typical British fare. “And we also do the typical fish and chips here as well, with mushy peas. That’s the pub favorite.”

Despite their British tastes and accents, only a fraction of Gibraltar’s 30,000 residents — all British citizens — actually have ancestors from the British Isles. Most are of Spanish, Portuguese, or Italian descent. Their ancestors were Mediterranean traders from places like Venice, Malta — or as far away as India.

“They saw Gibraltar, at the entrance to the Mediterranean, as a great trading post,” said Patrick Sacarello, who runs a coffee house his ancestors founded here in the 19th century. “The first Sacarello had a little sailing boat where he carried goods around the Mediterranean. This Italian influence can be seen in the stratas, the arches, the doorways — combined with English colonial architecture.”

To Spain, Gibraltar is just that — a colony — left over from the British Empire. It’s a peninsula physically attached to Spain, so it should belong to Spain — or so the thinking in Madrid goes.

But Gibraltarians have voted twice — overwhelmingly — to stay with Britain. The most recent referendum was 98 percent in favor.

“Of all the people who voted, only 44 people voted to go with Spain. And they say those were mistakes,” laughed Tito Vallejo, a retired Gibraltarian soldier. “They voted in the wrong box by mistake. That’s what they say.”

There’s just something about this Rock of Gibraltar, that ties people to it.

“We’ve been British for 300 years, and we have a hostile neighbor. People here identify themselves at British, they feel British. The identity of this people is intimately linked to this rock,” said Reyes, the newspaperman. “Sure, it’s just a rock. But it’s a place — it’s a home. And it’s a pretty iconic rock.”

The Rock of Gibraltar is made of limestone, which formed from prehistoric shellfish that died and sank to the bottom of the sea. The limestone was pushed up by the movement of African and European tectonic plates, creating this rock some 200 million years ago. It stands 1,400 feet high, and has been home to settlements of Phoenicians, Romans, Moors from North Africa, Spaniards and most recently, the British.

The 1713 Treaty of Utrecht awarded Britain sovereignty over the rock which continues today. Gibraltarians pay taxes to local British authorities, vote in local elections and rely on London for foreign affairs and defense only.

No story about Gibraltar would be complete, however, without a mention of Europe’s only wild monkey population, brought to Gibraltar by either British soldiers or Arab traders, centuries ago.

Hundreds of Barbary Apes chomp on carrots, scamper over the rock and then nap in the sun.

“The legend is that whenever the last monkey disappears from Gibraltar, we’ll give this back to Spain,” said Mark Varjaque, a local guide who drives van loads of tourists to the top of the rock every day, to see the monkeys. “But I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Because, he says, the monkeys have been mating and multiplying like crazy.

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