The Spanish foreign minister, in a recent speech at a conference in Madrid, made an obvious yet controversial observation. In reflecting on his trip to the Campo area last month, he noted how he “understood” Gibraltar’s position, citing the comparative affluence of the Gibraltarians. He retorted, “Do you think they [Gibraltarians] want to be like those other people [Campo residents]?” His observation, taken independently, is correct; we in Gibraltar benefit from an enviable standard of living, and not just in comparison to our next-door neighbours. Yet the causal link he attempts to establish, i.e. that we do not want to be Spanish because we are more affluent than they are, is wide off the mark. Even if the inverse were the case, that we were less affluent than they, we would undoubtedly still hold to our wish to remain British – and we have been there before and done it.
It should be evident to Sr Dastis that it is way more than just prosperity that keeps us Gibraltarians away from Spain. For starters, and most fundamentally, we are at loggerheads over our inalienable right to self-determination, which Spain anachronistically seeks to deprive us from. In other words, Spain is determined to prevent us becoming who and what we want to be; a reality that in and of itself makes rapprochement impossible. But even beyond this manifestly insurmountable difference, there are various other essential distinctions that make us not want to be like “those other people”.
Take the topical example of Spain’s approach to dispute resolution as has been made abundantly clear by her reaction to the recent Catalan ‘vote’. Spain appears to be averse to the idea of democratic dialogue. Yes, it is true that the Constitutional Court deemed the vote illegal, but the question is why did it get to that point? Why did the Spanish state not extend a political olive branch and pave the way for democratic dialogue before the events took place – á la Canada or UK? Constructive debate, the process of presenting an argument and convincing people of its validity, should be the instinctive response to political dilemmas in any self-respecting democracy. Instead the Spanish central government consistently withdraws itself into inflexible, and at times unnecessary, legal postures, and in so doing abdicates core democratic values. In fact this position demonstrates a deep-rooted insecurity towards a process of dialogue and democracy.
I must add an important caveat though. I do not mean to say that the rule of law should be rashly undermined; in fact I absolutely agree with the Spanish government’s insistence that the rule of law is a pillar of liberal democracy. However, the law can sometimes prove inadequate for a complex political situation, thus rendering it subordinate to the political will – the political will that after all gives rise to law in the first place. The fact is that there is a fine balance to maintain, and thus far Spain has proven unable to maintain it.
But even without such fundamental differences on self-determination and democratic ideals, Gibraltar, in my opinion, would still not want to be “like those other people.” For three hundred and thirteen years Gibraltar has moulded itself into a unique nation. Our multi-layered identity, concocted from our British, Mediterranean and European heritage (watch this space for more on this), is manifestly other than Spanish. In other words, we are just too different to want to be part of something else; and this goes further than only Spain, as our collective aversion to integration with Britain demonstrates. Therefore, precisely because we are a Gibraltarian people and, as Sr Dastis observes, the Spanish are “other”, any suggestion of amalgamation and losing our identity will continue to be firmly rejected.
So, Sr Dastis, as well as our enviable prosperity, it is the fact that we want a self-determined future that is not Spanish, the fact that we espouse different democratic values, the fact that we are a separate Gibraltarian people, and a host of other reasons that space prevents me from listing here, that we do not want to be “like those other people”.
Do not get me wrong however. Us not wanting to be Spanish does not equate to us wanting sour relations with our neighbour, much the opposite – as every political leader in Gibraltar’s history has propagated. There is a lot of common ground and common objectives that can be exploited for mutual benefit. Sr Dastis’s concern for the Campo and his commitment to an open and fluid border is a welcomed display of understanding and pragmatism. The sooner he becomes equally understanding of the above points the sooner even greater prosperity and conviviality can emerge. And with that who knows, maybe the need to re-emphasise the obvious differences might become redundant.