Brexit and Gibraltar Talks Could Impact Status of Ceuta, Melilla

Spain claims the 6.2 kilometer territory that is clearly within its geographical borders, even though it was ceded to Britain over three centuries ago.

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Rabat – Brussels and London finally concluded their Brexit trade deal ahead of Christmas, but for Gibraltar much remains in question. 

Spain claims the 6.2 kilometer territory that is clearly within its geographical borders, even though it was ceded to Britain over three centuries ago. The territory was not included in the Brexit trade deal, which means the “clock is still ticking,” according to Gibraltar’s Chief Minister Fabian Picardo.

Brexit has dominated international headlines for the last few years now. Nationalism, populism and xenophobia created a difficult negotiating position that was only just resolved yesterday. Yet for Gibraltar a “hard Brexit” continues to be an option without a treaty to govern its affairs in 2021.

The UK claims it has stood “side by side” with Gibraltar in “constructive discussions with Spain.” Still, the territory faces “the challenging nature of this process at the outset of talks,” a December 24 UK statement on the matter explained. As Brexit looms, it added, the UK now hopes to “mitigate the effects of the end of the Transition Period on Gibraltar.” 

For Gibraltar’s Chief Minister Fabian Picardo, the Brexit crisis is far from over. Talks continue over the fate of the British-controlled territory with Spain’s geographical borders. Spain’s European Affairs Minister Arancha Gonzalez and Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez emphasized that there was “no agreement” on Gibraltar amid ongoing negotiations. 

The UK hopes to ensure “border fluidity” that Gibraltar has enjoyed prior to Brexit. As a part of the EU, Britain’s territory on Spanish soil enjoyed the benefits of borderless trade and travel between the two EU member states. All of that is set to unravel with Brexit around the corner without a clear agreement on Gibraltar.

Territorial claims

The debate over Spanish claims on Gibraltar precede Brexit negotiations by three centuries.The territory was ceded to Britain following the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht that ended the War of the Spanish Succession. The treaty saw the emergence of the Spanish royal house of Bourbon, which still reigns today, and ended Spanish claims on France and ceded Gibraltar to Britain.

The treaty that sealed Gibraltar’s fate also shifted the balance of power in Europe, just as Brexit is doing today within the EU. Three centuries later, the treaty is again a topic of discussion as Gibraltar faces a hard Brexit without a clear trade deal ahead of the January 1 deadline.

For Britain, control of Gibraltar meant controlling a shipping lane through which passes half of the world’s maritime shipping. Similar to the choke point at the strait of Hormuz, control of Gibraltar meant controlling the entry point to the Mediterranean. For Britain it was a key point on the journey to British-controlled India, with Malta, Greece and the Suez canal as its Mediterranean route to its colonies in the East. 

For Spain, the case is a clear example of territorial integrity — despite three centuries of British control. The territory lies within Spain’s geographical borders and therefore belongs to Spain which controlled the region before Britain.

Spain’s claims are valid, but they create an uncomfortable position for the country in regard to its continued occupation of territory within Morocco’s geographical borders.

Similarities to Ceuta and Melilla

Spanish claims on Gibraltar have revolved around similar arguments that support Moroccan claims on Ceuta and Melilla. Gibraltar is clearly within Spanish geographical borders, demarcated by the Atlantic and the Mediterrean. Yet the same argument applies to Spain’s two remaining territories on African soil.

Ceuta and Melilla similarly were ceded in centuries-old treaties. They are also clearly within the geographical borders of another country, namely Morocco. If Spain pursues its claims on Gibraltar amid the UK’s Brexit chaos, it could cede the argument for Moroccans increasingly making the case against Madrid’s continued occupation of Moroccan territory. 

If Spanish geographical borders are a sufficient argument to abandon an 18th century treaty, why would Moroccan claims not invalidate the 17th century treaties that justify Spanish claims on the two enclaves? This is the predicament of Spain’s diplomatic corps as they determine how to pursue their country’s claims in Brexit, and post-Brexit, negotiations over Gibraltar.

If Spain does not use the current Brexit chaos to push for annexation of its rightful territory in Gibraltar, it could face a hard border with Britain. Without Gibraltar being part of the Schengen area, all trade and travel between Spain and Gibraltar will have to be tightly monitored. 

With the “clock ticking,” as Gibraltar’s Fabian Picardo has put it, British and Spanish diplomats face a delicate task. They will have to find a solution to the Gibraltar question that appeases both Britain’s Brexit enthusiasts andSpanish nationalists, while avoiding a situation that could see Spain return its enclaves on Moroccan soil. 

As time runs out, the consequences of Gibraltar’s post-Brexit status could reverberate across its strait, and inspire Morocco to “open discussion” with Spain on the status of Ceuta and Melilla.

Read also: Ceuta, Melilla and Morocco’s Displeasure with Spain on Western Sahara