Driving up the hill, to your right there is a viewpoint. From there you can almost reach out and touch Morocco. Looking down one can see where the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean meet. It’s very peaceful and one can spend hours there just taking in the view. A little further down the road and passing the port town of Algeciras, the first sign for Gibraltar can be seen. Sometimes people throw paint at the sign, other times it is left alone. Driving through La Linea, one needs to take a lane to the right which is poorly indicated and many first timers who are trying to cross the border miss it and are forced to turn around and do it all again. The Rock sticks out and you can't but be impressed by it. After a long line, you cross the border and you enter a different world. A world that has been in the news a lot lately but despite Spain’s protests and arguments, they really do need Britain to hold onto the rock or ‘El Peñon’ as it is known in Spanish.
Gibraltar is a strange place. As you walk down Main Street, bars advertising ‘Pub Grub’ which include all day breakfasts make you feel as you are walking down just another typical British street but the sun in the sky and the heat remind you that you are in the south of Europe. Red post-boxes, traditional phone booths and ‘Bobbies’ are a further reminder that you are in a British territory. The locals can be heard speaking Spanish, in a type of Andalucian accent, or English, with a British accent. Sometimes when they speak, both languages are mixed and a sentence that starts in English ends in Spanish or vice versa.
The most common tourist souvenir isn’t something with the Union Jack blazed across it, although there are quite a few of them, but toy monkeys! As you go up the rock, you get to take in some very impressive views and also some very curious and real life monkeys are there to meet you. Guides and posters warn you that you should be careful with food and cameras because the little buggers are experts at snatch and grab. Local rumours say that the monkeys built tunnels from Morocco and made their way over to the rock and have been living there happily ever since. The Spanish say that when the monkey’s leave that Gibraltar will cease to be British but this is something, despite their comments to the contrary, that the Spanish Government really don’t want. Gibraltar and its Spain V Britain argument has a long history, a history that could take well over 2000 words so let’s just look at the recent part.
In 1967 residents voted to remain under British sovereignty and two years later it was passed into their Constitution. Spanish dictator Francisco Franco claimed that ‘Gibraltar was a knife in the heart of every Spaniard’ and he tried to build up the area around the Rock in an attempt to tempt the locals to switch allegiances. When they ignored his gestures he lost his temper and closed the border permanently. Twenty years later the border was open and today over 6000 Spaniards are working there. Residents of La Linea don’t share the same feelings as most Spanish as they have learned to live in harmony, well apart from the fishermen, with their friends across the border. In the town of La Linea there was a fish and chip shop. It was full of local and British people, showing that both sides of the border could live together with no issues, until it went the way of many small businesses in Spain and closed. As you wait in your car to cross over, there are signs for houses in English. But every now and again things take a turn and everything gets shaken up.
Right now Spain is up in arms over Gibraltar dropping an artificial reef. The local government say it was to attract more fish to the area but fishermen say it was to prevent them from making a livelihood. As the Treaty of Utrecht is always presented to Spaniards when they argue over their right to territory, one thing the Spanish always throw back is that the treaty makes no mention of the waters surrounding the rock and so they belong to Spain.
This argument has seen many incidents involving citizens and police forces from both sides. The one thing that gives weight to the fishermen’s complaint is that if the reef is to attract fish, why did the blocks have huge iron rods sticking out of them, rods that are cutting their nets. Another thing that is a little strange is that in all my times driving down past the port of the town, I have never seen as many boats as I have this summer. Gibraltar say that some of the boats have been brought in from other parts of Spain to help boost sympathy but that didn’t stop Spanish Prime Minster Mariano Rajoy from waltzing into the dispute. Forgetting the other 6000 people that make their livelihood in Gibraltar, his government ordered extensive border checks and even touted the idea of charging cars to cross to and from the border. The Spanish government had jumped straight in and proclaimed their full support for La Linea fishing community but let’s not make any mistake, they have another agenda and in the full light of day, their real concerns have nothing to do with fish in the south of Spain.
August is a traditional holiday month for Spaniards. Millions pack up the car and drive to beaches where they are joined by friends and family. Whilst they are there, they have time to converse and discuss sport, life and sometimes a bit of politics. Also it is a time when people have time to watch TV that normally they miss at work. If you are a Prime Minister, you want to make sure that you have done your job well and there is the problem.
Mariano Rajoy represents the Spanish right wing party, Partido Popular, and he isn’t exactly popular. Rajoy took power after the Socialist government led the country into recession as the property bubble burst. Rajoy promised jobs, security and to make Spain a major economic force again. So far he has done the opposite. Major cuts to education, health and a huge rise in unemployment have seen mass demonstrations across Spain, There has been an exodus of young skilled workers who have been forced to leave the country in search of work. Just when things couldn’t get worse, corruption arises.
A former treasurer for Rajoy’s Partido Popular is a known Tax Dodger. He took advantage of a tax amnesty to return to Spain but that is not the reason Luis Bárcenas is in the news now. A tribunal was opened in 2009, investigating corruption within the PP but the political party scored a major victory when they got the judge who opened it disbarred but the stories are starting to come quick and fast. The left leaning newspaper El País revealed that Bárcenas had a ledger of under the table payments to leading PP party members and Rajoy was one of them. After dealing out harsh words to those who failed to declare earnings to the Taxman, it seemed the PM was also one of the many Spaniards who collected part of their salary in a brown envelope.
The PP denied it, supported the former Treasurer and strongly backed their leader but the heat didn’t die down and so they decided it was time to cut some of their ties. A judge decided that Bárcenas was a flight risk as it was discovered he had millions hidden in Switzerland. Suddenly those who had supported him, stayed silent. He was hung out to dry, sent to prison and he sought revenge. The PP claimed that Rajoy was innocent and had nothing to do with any of the dealings but then this summer El Mundo released text messages from Rajoy offering support and asking for patience from Bárcenas. Spain wanted answers, some wanted Rajoy out and he went into parliament and gave weak excuses.
Unemployment had been reduced but it was only temporary as it was to fill summer vacancies. With no long term plans to reduce it and with youth unemployment on the rise, these corruption allegations couldn't have come at a worse time. Spain was still in recession too and so as the rocks splashed into the water around Gibraltar, the screams of joy from the Presidential palace in Moncloa, Madrid could be heard all around the local area.
Gibraltar is a safe bet for politicians. It is their fail-safe that they can go to when the shit hits the fan. They know that no matter how bad things are, they can use El Peñon to stir up nationalist feelings and suddenly the previous issues disappear. The Spanish right have used Gibraltar before to help distract voters. So too have the Left. In 2006 after bringing in gay marriage, the Partido Socialista Obrero Español under José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero needed to do something to distract and win over the million odd people from the right that were marching around Madrid opposing the new law. They had also announced plans to give Catalonia and the Basque Country greater autonomy and so they needed something to get back into some voters good books. Again Gibraltar was used.
In 2006 a deal was struck with Tony Blair that saw planes, destined for Gibraltar, being allowed fly over the Iberian Peninsula. Blair also said that he planned to investigate the possibility of joint sovereignty. Although it was never going to get off the ground, it gave Zapetero some positive press. When the PP won the 2012 election one of the first things they did was to scrap some of the agreements made by the PSOE with Gibraltar. Again it was a move that saw them win a lot of support on the streets. Of course both parties will always deny it but can it still be seen as more than a coincidence that every time a political party needs a pick me up, they return to the issue of a rock in the sea?
Right now Spanish politicians are calling for more talks on the sovereignty but as the title of this piece and hopefully the article explains, that is the last thing Spain really want. I have been to Gibraltar just under ten times and I recommend that Spaniards, British or any other nationality who read this that should you be near the area, it is worth popping over to see. The residents on both sides of the border are friendly and helpful and it’s a real shame that they are being used as political tools by the powers that be. It is not only the monkeys that one needs to be aware of, the politicians seem happy to use and rob everyone too.