Spanish ships have recently been accused of violating British territorial waters around Gibraltar. This is only the most recent incident in ongoing dispute over the sovereignty of ‘The Rock’. So what is the history behind the dispute?

Gibraltar is a limestone outcrop at the mouth of the Mediterranean less than six square kilometres in size. As a British Overseas Territory, all its residents are British citizens and is self-governing in all matters apart from foreign policy and defence. Despite its small size, it has an airstrip and a port, and is strategically important territory for the UK, being only 12 miles from the north coast of Africa. In the north, it borders Spain, which claims sovereignty over ‘The Rock’.

Yesterday, Spanish state vessels repeatedly entered the territorial waters of Gibraltar without notifying the authorities in the territory, something the British Minister for the territory has described as a ‘clear violation of UK sovereignty by another EU country’. This has been a fairly common occurance in recent years, with tensions running high in February 2013 after a Spanish warship entered the territorial waters of Gibraltar and disrupted a Royal Navy training exercise.

The dispute over the sovereignty of Gibraltar dates back some 300 years. ‘The Rock’ was captured by an Anglo-Dutch force in August 1704, during the War of Spanish Succession. Once the war finished, the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713 granted the then Kingdom of Great Britain ‘the full and and entire propriety of the town and castle of Gibraltar, together with the port, fortifications, and forts thereunto belonging… for ever, without any exception or impediment whatsoever’.

Despite this, however, successive Spanish governments have attempted to reclaim Gibraltar, describing the territory as a ‘colony’. Spain have approached the United Nations on several occasions over Gibraltar’s disputed status, which called upon both parties to resume negotiations ‘with a view to putting an end to the colonial situation in Gibraltar and safeguarding the interests of the population.’

Two referendums held in Gibraltar, one in 1967 and another in 2002, both rejected any transfer of sovereignty to Spain. Some 99.6% voted in favour of remaining British in 1967, with 98.5% rejecting a condominium solution – in which Britain and Spain would share sovereignty.

In 2008, the British government ruled out any negotiation regarding Gibraltar, saying ‘the UK government will never enter into an agreement on sovereignty without the agreement of the Government of Gibraltar and their people. In fact, we will never even enter into a process without that agreement.’ The UK has also ruled out independence for the territory, saying that such a move would also require Spanish consent, under the terms set out in the Treaty of Utrecht.

Spain also disputes the extent of territorial waters of the British territory. The Treaty of Utrecht did specify territorial waters in it, but international treaties that followed since have expanded that to now three nautical miles. Britain continues to maintain that Spain is in the wrong for denying Gibraltar its territorial waters, however the European Commission included in 2008 most of the territorial waters that surround ‘The Rock’ in a marine conservation area, which is to be maintained by Spanish authorities. The British have and continue to appeal against this decision.

The dispute that has existed between the United Kingdom and Spain for over three centuries has no signs of abating any time soon, as long as Spain continues to claim sovereignty and Gibraltarians continue to support the status quo.