As Brexit Looms, Troubled Seas around Gibraltar should have Washington’s Attention

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Courtesy Patrick McDonald / Flickr

This article was originally published by the War on the Rocks on 12 August 2016.

From America’s first major overseas military intervention in 1801 against the Barbary States to today’s on-going military presence in the region, the United States has often relied on a tiny piece of the United Kingdom located in the Mediterranean Sea.

Gibraltar, commonly referred to simply as “the Rock,” is a rocky headland covering just over 2.7 square miles on the southern coast of the Iberian Peninsula. It is strategically located at the western entrance to the Mediterranean Sea, where the strait between Europe and Africa spans a mere 7.7 nautical miles at its narrowest point.

After being captured from the Moors in 1462, Gibraltar was part of Spain until it was captured in 1704 by a joint Anglo-Dutch-Catalan force during the War of the Spanish Succession. The Rock was formally ceded to the United Kingdom in 1713 as part of the Treaty of Utrecht “…forever, without any exception or impediment whatsoever.”

Since losing Gibraltar in 1704, the Spanish have sought to take it back. Examples abound through the last three centuries. They unsuccessfully laid siege to Gibraltar on three separate occasions in the 18th century and have since used a combination of military, diplomatic, economic, and plain harassing tactics in an attempt to get the Rock back. More recently, after the Gibraltarians approved a new constitution in 1969, Spain’s fascist dictator Francesco Franco closed the land border and blocked telecommunications between Spain and Gibraltar until the border was reopened in 1985.

Gibraltar is not a “colony” — a lie often peddled by Madrid. It is one of 14 British Overseas Territories around the world. Like all other British Overseas Territories (and unlike colonies), Gibraltar has chosen to be self-governing while maintaining the British monarch as its head of state. Aside from defense and foreign policy, Gibraltar is self-supporting. As a British Overseas Territory the Rock’s inhabitants have the right of self-determination. In other words, at any time Gibraltar can decide to leave Great Britain. In two recent referenda, Gibraltar’s 30,000 inhabitants, a large majority of whom are British citizens, have shown overwhelmingly that they do not want to be part of Spain.

In light of the recent Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, Spain is redoubling its efforts to regain control of the Rock. The day after the vote acting Spanish foreign minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo quickly pounced, suggesting that the United Kingdom and Spain should agree to “joint sovereignty” over Gibraltar. The implications of this are more than political. There are security implications, especially for the United States. If the Rock becomes Spanish, or even put under joint sovereignty, the United States would not enjoy the same level of cooperation and use of Gibraltar as it has since 1801 under British control.

In 2002, Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government came very close to agreeing to joint sovereignty with the Spanish over Gibraltar. There was concern, however, about what this would mean for future use of Gibraltar by the U.S. military. With the rise of ISIL and a resurgent Russia — both of which demand more robust military operations in the Mediterranean littoral — those concerns should be even more acute today.

Gibraltar remains the most accessible and available port for U.S. nuclear-powered submarines in the Mediterranean, due to burdensome security and administrative requirements for such visits in other NATO countries in the region. The mission and location of America’s nuclear-powered submarines is highly classified information. At Gibraltar, U.S. submarines can dock with little or no prior notice. Conversely, I have been told by senior British officials that U.S. submarines can dock at Spanish and other bases that NATO uses in Mediterranean only with prior notice, which requires sharing sensitive information about submarine operations, such as how many people are getting on and off the vessels, what is being removed and added to them, when it is leaving, and where it is going.

The Rock has other maritime advantages too. It stores a type of intermediate fuel oil required by some U.S. Navy ships that is not readily available in other ports in the region. Its deepwater port has provided a secure docking area as well as vast amounts of safe anchorage for U.S. warships. In 1990 and 1991, an estimated 193 U.S. Navy ships used Gibraltar’s waters in support of operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield. The topography and geographical location of Gibraltar makes intelligence gathering a core function there.

Throughout history many of America’s military operations in the region have relied on Gibraltar.

In 1818, during the Second Barbary War against the Regency of Algiers, another U.S. Navy task force was assembled at Gibraltar under the command of Commodore Stephen Decatur. In 1899, U.S. Admiral George Dewey stopped in Gibraltar to resupply his ships after his defeat of the Spanish in the Battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish–American War. Obviously none of this would have been possible had the Rock been Spanish soil. In 1909, the Great White Fleet made its final stop in Gibraltar to resupply coal before heading back to the U.S. during its famous around-the-world trip.

During World War I Gibraltar was a meeting point for many Allied convoys before crossing the Atlantic. In 1917 the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard joined British forces at Gibraltar and operated together as part of the so-called Gibraltar Barrage— an Anglo-American naval squadron tasked with keeping German submarines from passing from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic after the surrender of Austria and Turkey. Of course, Spain was neutral during the war, so under Spanish control it is likely that Gibraltar would not have been available.

During World War II, Gibraltar played an even more important role for the United States and United Kingdom. During the war, the Rock became an impregnable fortress: an airfield was constructed, the bay was filled with Allied ships, and at its peak 37,000 American and British troops were based there. Most importantly, General Dwight Eisenhower used Gibraltar as his headquarters to plan Operation Torch, the 1942 Allied invasion of North Africa.

The use of Gibraltar during World War II was only possible because it was not under Spanish control. Spanish dictator Francisco Franco proclaimed Spain to be neutral. But as General Eisenhower wrote in his 1949 book Crusade in Europe:

Worse, the airfield itself lay on the Spanish border, separated from Spanish territory only by a barbed-wire fence. Politically, Spain was leaning toward the Axis, and, almost physically, leaning against the barbed-wire fence were any number of Axis agents.

Today, Spain is an important ally and home to several U.S. military installations, but its recent behavior toward Gibraltar is unbecoming of a NATO member. Madrid’s shenanigans also have a direct impact on the effectiveness of U.S. military operations in the Mediterranean.

Spain routinely and provocatively violates Gibraltar’s territorial waters, making hundreds of illegal incursions each year. Spanish ships from the paramilitary Guardia Civil (akin to the French National Gendarmerie or Italian Carabinieri) have dangerously harassed U.S. ships entering Gibraltar’s port, putting at risk the safety of all those concerned. Most recently this occurred with the submarine USS Florida when the Royal Navy had to fire warning shots at the approaching Spanish vessels. Even though Spain is a NATO member, Madrid bans visits by U.S. ships or planes coming directly from — or headed directly to — Gibraltar. For example, if a U.S. plane wants to fly from the U.S. base at Rota, Spain to Gibraltar it must first touchdown in a third country (often Morocco or Portugal). Spain, like other southern European members of NATO, benefits greatly from the security offered by the presence of the U.S. Navy and Air Force in the region. Madrid’s restrictions on the movement of military assets in the region potentially undermines the operational capabilities of the United States.

Further, Spain has developed an uncomfortably cozy relationship with the Russian Navy, raising eyebrows across Europe. Since 2011, at least 58 Russian Navy ships have called into the Spanish port of Ceuta just across the strait from Gibraltar. At least 21 Russian naval vessels have refueled and resupplied in Spain since Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in March 2014 and the European Union imposed economic sanctions against Moscow. The most recent Russian ship to visit Spain, the frigate Ladny, is even part of the Black Sea Fleet participating in the illegal occupation of Crimea.

Does this sound like the behavior of a NATO member?

The United States is correct to recognize the right of self-determination for the Rock’s inhabitants, a principle on which America was founded. Due to the access the U.S. military enjoys in Gibraltar, the strategic value of its geography to NATO, and the close relationship America has with the United Kingdom, it matters that Gibraltar remains British.

Spain may not like it, but they will have to deal with it.

About the Author

Luke Coffey is the director of The Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies.

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