By Jeremy Sacramento
In his recent visit to the ‘Campo’ area Sr Dastis reiterated his posture regarding Brexit and Gibraltar’s sovereignty, i.e. the non-existent one. In response to GBC’s Jonathan Sacramento’s question, Sr Dastis refrained from even uttering the word sovereignty, instead focusing on the continued fluidity of the border. This position could not be in starker contrast from his predecessor Sr Margallo, who, in a similar visit to the area a year ago, unswervingly focused on sovereignty.
So what is it that has produced this remarkable shift in position from the Spanish Government? Is it simply down to the change of incumbent at the Palacio de Santa Cruz? That is, is Sr Dastis from a different, less Gibraltar-obsessed, wing of the PP? Or, is it that, as a career diplomat, he is taking a clandestine approach? Both certainly carry traction. However, I reckon there is another, external, factor which weighs more heavily on the Spanish Government: Catalonia.
In a recent conversation with a colleague of mine, Dr Jaume Castan Pinos (Associate Professor of International Relations, specialising in ‘territoriality’ and territorial disagreements), we discussed the fragility of the Spanish State against the Catalan independence movement. Jaume highlighted how Spanish advances on Gibraltar’s sovereignty within the Brexit framework are hampered “by the elephant in the room, Catalonia”.
For starters, the sovereignty narrative in Spain now revolves around Catalonia, especially with the looming ‘1-O’ (1st October referendum on independence). It would therefore be suicidal to raise the matter of Gibraltar’s sovereignty when part of it’s own territory, and seven million of its citizens, are on the brink of a unilateral declaration of independence.
But beyond bad press, can the Catalonia question really be influencing Spain’s timid posture on Gibraltar? After all, Spain still holds the trump card with the EU’s support of Clause 24, not to mention the perilous state of the UK’s negotiating tactics – at this rate bound to concession making. Yes, but the nature of secession, where international recognition is sine qua non, is such that it supersedes this otherwise perfect opportunity for Spain to advance its claim. In other words, it is absolutely not in Spain’s interest to antagonise the UK with the comparatively trivial question of Gibraltar’s sovereignty as the UK could in turn recognise Catalan independence, or at least threaten to do so.
Why is recognition so important? If Catalonia goes down the route of a unilateral declaration of independence, which might come as soon as October – the ‘Govern’ has already laid down the necessary legislation in Catalonia to move this forward should the vote come out in favour of independence–, the new Catalan state would simply require external recognition of their sovereign status.
Allow me to elaborate. International law stipulates that for a territory to constitute a state it needs to both function as one, i.e. have all the necessary governmental instruments, and, it must be accepted as one by the international community. Interestingly, regarding the latter, international law does not provide a threshold as to how many states’ recognition is required. International practice has however demonstrated that it is instead which states recognise that matters. Take for instance Palestine, which despite counting on recognition from 136 states (70% of UN Members) is not recognised as a state, as the remaining 30% happen to be influential Western states such as the US, UK, France, Germany, Canada, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, etc.
It is here where the UK, and its potential recognition of Catalan independence comes in. The UK still carries some weight internationally, and UK recognition of Catalan independence could lead to a domino-effect for other states to recognise the same – especially those states that have become sympathetic to the cause following indefatigable Catalan lobbying, e.g. Denmark.
Spain is no doubt aware of this reality. It is this realisation that, in my opinion, is the main thrust guiding Spanish policy on Gibraltar. So, Sr Dastis, you do well to steer clear from talk of sovereignty.