Its August, the sun is shining, the politicians are on holiday and the media are desperately searching around for some kind of story to fill the news. Suddenly, the perfect story has emerged- those dreadful Spanish are doing all manner of dubious things to threaten Gibraltar and simultaneously the Falkland Islands. Is there reason for panic, or is it a case of just summer bluster in order to distract attention from other problems? The UK has always had a challenging relationship with the Spanish over Gibraltar – no matter how much the UK wishes to move the relationship forward (and in many areas it remains an extremely strong and positive relationship), this feels as if it is an issue which cannot easily be resolved.
The current situation owes much to the Spanish ratcheting up tensions after claims that Gibraltar was laying concrete blocks into local waters, in turn threatening traditional fishing grounds. It is hard to work out whether this is a genuine grievance, or merely a convenient pretext in order to gain some traction on putting pressure on the territory. Following a previous weekend where long traffic jams occurred with checks on all cars transiting the border, the Spanish are now reportedly considering imposing an entrance / exit tax of 50 Euros on anyone transiting their side of the border. While such taxes may be deeply unpleasant, they are perhaps not necessarily new (many countries impose similar entrance taxes around the world). The question is to what extent would this damage the local economy? It is worth considering that many Gibraltarians work in southern Spain, so any tax would probably make it difficult to get to work and damage the livelihood of many small businesses – perhaps appealing in a nation where youth unemployment is ever higher, but in the interim it could easily cause more long term economic damage to both the Spanish and Gibraltarian economies.
There have been increasing demands that the UK should do something, including the classic ‘send a gunboat’ line. In reality it is hard to see what such a deployment would achieve beyond having a vessel spend quite a lot of time sitting in waters which already have a small RN presence, and which would be unlikely to achieve anything tangible – it is wonderful to see a large escort ship alongside or steaming majestically at sea. It is less clear what putting such a vessel into these waters would do though beyond look terribly steely and help improve the 'donkeys flip flops' profits for the year.
The best approach to this seems to be the one being taken – namely trying to negotiate rationally and to avoid unnecessary provocations. This may not be as satisfying as summoning a countries ambassador and telling them exactly where to go, but is ultimately a lot more productive. Dealing with a culture which wears its heart openly on its sleeve on this issue is challenging. Overt threats will be seen as provocation, and ultimately the more two people face off against each other, the harder it is for one side to back down without losing significant face. Far better to be calm, measured and identify what can be done to de-escalate the situation. In the worst case scenario (which is arguably the Spanish shutting the borders), there is an economic impact on Gibraltar which would be keenly felt. The more that the UK raises the tensions, the more difficult it is to calm this all down.Far better to ride this out, represent the national interest in a measured manner and seek effective ways to make a point. From an international perspective, is it not better to be seen as the aggrieved party whose nationals are being unfairly targeted, than a equal participant in a puerile demonstration of machoism?
Linked to this is the news in one paper today that the Spanish may be selling a limited number of Mirage jets to Argentina. It is not clear whether this is actually news, or whether it’s the case that the Tabloid press have been looking on Wikipedia and turned what is a one line entry on future Spanish Mirage jet prospects into an article designed to raise tensions. In reality this site has long made the point that the Argentine Armed Forces are in a parlous state, and that they are desperately short of spares, training and operational experience.
They've also taken various fleets of aircraft out of service in recent years, so its entirely reasonable to expect some form of replacement at some point. In the case of the Mirage jets, they entered service in 1975 and are extremely old and not necessarily front line fast jet material any longer. Acquisition of a small number of 1970s vintage jets which have been worked hard for nearly 40 years is not really going to change the balance of power in the South Atlantic. Indeed, its worth noting that right now (if you believe Wikipedia) the entire Argentine Mirage fleet is grounded anyway due to spares and safety issues. At best this acquisition may try and restore some limited capability. So, its fair to say that the Falkland Islands are hardly at risk of collapse – if the acquisition of a small number of ancient fighter aircraft materially changes the balance of power, then something has gone very badly wrong in UK defence planning circles.
In summary then, as this situation continues it is worth remembering that just because the FCO isn't making increasingly angry gestures to the Spanish publicly, and just because the Foreign Secretary hasn't challenged his opposite number to a duel, it doesn't mean that things aren't going on. At times it feels as if some people in the UK inherently dislike what can perhaps be seen as a lack of visible progress, or feel that not going onto national media and slagging off a nation means that we are now a collective nation of bed-wetting losers. In reality, if one looks at history, the crises that were averted were the ones solved quietly with at least one side acting in a rational and mature manner. Far better to occupy the moral high ground, and enjoy international support, than force yourself to share the muddy low ground. This isn't the first time that the Spanish have been challenging over the Rock, and its unlikely to be the last.Based on what the media are reporting, it is likely that this situation will continue for some time to come, but for now at least, even if there is no longer a Grand Fleet to send, or an HMS HOOD to conduct neutrality patrols, just remember that the world as we know it is not ending, even if the tabloids want you to think so