Michael Rubin: Spain's Land Grab in Gibraltar Is Pure Hypocrisy

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People entering the British territory of Gibraltar, historically claimed by Spain, at its border with Spain, in La Linea de la Concepcion, Spain June 24, 2016. Michael Rubin writes that if Spain uses the Brexit negotiations to land grab the Rock, the Spanish colonies in Morocco of Ceuta and Melilla will instantly demand freedom from Spanish rule. Jon Nazca/reuters

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

The European Union's leadership, bitter over the British government fulfilling the democratic mandate of its public to exit the European Union, has given Spain veto power over any future relationship between Gibraltar, a British territory, and the European Union.

Spain has long resented British possession of Gibraltar, which an Anglo-Dutch force captured in 1704 during the War of Spanish Succession and which Spain ceded to Great Britain in the Treaty of Utrecht seven years later.

Today, just over 32,000 people live in the territory, the vast majority of whom have repeatedly voted overwhelmingly both for their own autonomy and to reject any sharing of sovereignty with Spain.

Spain may very well return to the days when it effectively embargoed Gibraltar, denying easy access to tourists and forcing residents to rely on air links to Great Britain to run their economy. The bureaucrats in Brussels frankly may also cheer on Spain's punishment of the population and economy of Gibraltar as a means to signal its annoyance with Great Britain for turning its back on the European experiment.

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Spain, however, is playing with fire and risks creating a precedent which will burn it several times over. Here's the problem:

While Spain might object to Great Britain maintaining sovereignty over a 2.6-square-mile territory that Madrid sees as its own, Spain has its own enclaves on the Mediterranean carved out of what should be, but for historical accidents of centuries past, sovereign Moroccan territory.

Ceuta is only 7 square miles. In 1415, the Portuguese captured Ceuta and, during the next century when Portugal and Spain briefly united, Spaniards flocked to the city. The 1668 Treaty of Lisbon formally ceded Ceuta to Spain to whom it has belonged ever since. Spain, along with France, was a colonial power in Morocco but, in 1956 when Spain withdrew from northern Morocco (it would leave the Western Saharan in 1975), it continued to hold Ceuta.

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Melilla, only 4.7 square miles, has a similar history. Spain conquered the city in 1497 and rebuffed subsequent Moroccan political and diplomatic efforts to win it back. Spain may consider it an autonomous territory but, it reality, it is a colonial outpost and an accident of history.

Spain may seek advantage from Brexit going forward in order to reclaim Gibraltar; that's Madrid's prerogative. However, so long as Spain continues to hold Ceuta and Melilla, instead of allowing an extension of Moroccan sovereignty, then Spain and the European Union's case will be both hypocritical and weak.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. A former Pentagon official, his major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy.

Michael Rubin: Spain's Land Grab in Gibraltar Is Pure Hypocrisy | Opinion