Conflict over Gibraltar: Who has control?

Alexandria Costello


Gibraltar is a 6.5 square kilometer territory located south of the Spanish border, along the Strait of Gibraltar. The small area is officially an overseas territory of the United Kingdom, and has a population of nearly 30,000 people.

An extensive shipping trade, banking and tourism economically support Gibraltar. An overwhelming majority of the population practices Catholicism, but other religions are present, and include the Church of England and Judaism.

The territory is strategically located at the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea, and just across the Straight of Gibraltar from North Africa. (CIA World Factbook)

The small territory of Gibraltar, located on the southern tip of Spain. Map: CIA World Factbook.
The small territory of Gibraltar, located on the southern tip of Spain. Map: CIA World Factbook, public domain.

Both Britain and Spain claim sovereignty over the territory of Gibraltar partially as a result of the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), which forced Spain to cede the territory. According to the treaty, Gibraltar is “to be held and enjoyed absolutely with all manor of right for ever, without any exception or impediment whatsoever.” Furthermore, it states “in case it shall hereafter seem meet to the Crown of Great Britain to grant, sell, or by any means alienate the propriety of the said town of Gibraltar, it is hereby agreed and concluded that the preference of having the same shall always be given to the Crown of Spain before any others.” (Heasman, 1966) While the first section of the statement from the Treaty of Utrecht is Britain’s original right to the territory, the second portion of the statement is Spain’s basis for control. It is Spain’s opinion that the territory belongs to them, because Gibraltar enjoys too much sovereignty to be considered under the control of Britain. Britain continues to uphold Gibraltar’s status as an overseas territory, thus declaring Spain’s claim to be moot.

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A map of Gibraltar.  Source: CIA World Factbook
A map of Gibraltar. Source: CIA World Factbook, public domain

The British Empire seized control over Gibraltar in 1704, at which point most of the Spanish inhabitants were forced to flee in order to avoid persecution. The land was then re-inhabited primarily by the British, as well as some Mediterranean peoples and Sephardic Jews. The people of Gibraltar were diverse, and thus developed a unique culture that has been very influenced by their “mother country.” Today they are English speaking, and have British characteristics. As a result, the British are able to claim cultural rights to the area, whereas the Spanish do not have that benefit. (Grant, 2002)

Gibraltar operated as a strategically located naval, and air force base for the British. This was, and to some degree still is, a major reason that the British wish to maintain control of the territory. (Grant, 2002) While there are many similarities between the British and Gibraltarians, the attitude of the citizens of the UK has been largely apathetic toward the outcome of the Gibraltar situation now that it is not vital as a military base. (Spain Exchange)

In recent years, Britain has taken a more open-minded stance on the Gibraltar issue in regards to sharing sovereignty with Spain. They have come up with several ideas, including one in which the Queen of England and the King of Spain would both be heads of state for the Gibraltarian people. This has been rejected by Spain for the reason that is merely symbolic, and holds no political weight. Gibraltarians soundly disapprove of this idea as well because they feel it completely disregards their right to self-determination, which they have fought hard to receive. (Spain Exchange)

The Treaty of Utrecht.  Image: Wikipedia Commons.
The Treaty of Utrecht, 1713. Original Spanish version on the left, and English and Latin translation on the right. Image: Wikipedia Commons, public domain.

Spain claims that the Treaty of Utrecht (which ironically is the agreement that caused them to officially lose Gibraltar) is the ticket to their sovereignty over the territory in modern times. Despite the United Kingdom declaring Gibraltar an overseas territory, Spain argues that Gibraltar is nearly self-governing, and therefore no longer falls under the jurisdiction of Britain. Consequently, the Gibraltarian people are the “others” mentioned in the Treaty of Utrecht who should not have claim to the land, because it must return “to the Crown of Spain,” if Britain should separate itself. (Heasman, 1966) They see the free choices of the Gibraltarians to be an insult, because they are not “indigenous,” and as a result, “are not a ‘colonial’ people, but rather, a ‘colonizing’ people.” (Spain Exchange) Furthermore, they make the argument that Britain should not be allowed to still hold a colony in the modern world, and should return the property to it’s rightful pre-colonial owner; Spain. (Spain Exchange)

Geographically, Spain has reason to claim Gibraltar, as it is located on the country’s southern border, and according to them is situated on Spanish territory. (Spanish Exchange) Historically, Gibraltar was part of the Spanish Empire for many years, “from the Reconquista through the War of Spanish Succession.” (Grant, 2002) They have not had legal control over it for over three centuries.

The Chief Minister of Gibraltar, Peter Caruana spoke to the UN about Spain’s reasons and justifications for claiming the territory. He asserted that many democratic members of the UN would “…think it incomprehensible that the Kingdom of Spain, itself an important democracy, continues to believe and assert that the people of Gibraltar do not enjoy the right to self determination.” (Caruana, 2011) As his statement suggests, the Gibraltarian peoples’ main disapproval of the Spanish claim to sovereignty is that they base it off of the assumption that Gibraltar is no longer entirely occupied by Britain, so Gibraltarians are not the rightful owners of the nation. By the Treaty of Utrecht they should not be allowed to control their own outcome, because without the presence of the British, Spain should regain power. The Gibraltarian government argues that international laws have nullified the Treaty of Utrecht because of developments in human rights since the early eighteenth century. (Caruana, 2011)

In recent years, Gibraltarians’ major goal has been to gain a voice in the political discourse between Great Britain and Spain. Recently they have become disillusioned by the way the UK has treated issues regarding their future without their consent. Gibraltarian citizens want it to be considered that they do not wish to fall under Spanish rule, and nor do they necessarily want to sever ties with Britain. They have soundly rejected any suggestions that Spain and Britain share sovereignty. (The British Empire) Culturally and historically they feel connected to the UK, as they share a language, university system, government structure, and follow British culture through TV and radio. This makes them even less inclined to want to join the Spanish, with whom they share little culture, and under whom they would lose much of the autonomy the British have allowed. (Spain Exchange)

HMS Dragon Near Gibraltar. Photo: Dave Jenkins, Ministry of Defence, United Kingdom under license
HMS Dragon Near Gibraltar. Photo: Dave Jenkins, Ministry of Defence, United Kingdom under license OGL (Open Government License).

Ultimately, the status of Gibraltar is only partially about the 6.5 square kilometer chunk of land, the wealth that it produces, the military successes it has provided, it’s strategic location, or even the Treaty of Utrecht. There is a deeper issue underling the 300-year-old conflict, which has to do with bruised national pride, and unresolved grudges. Neither Britain nor Spain is made or ruined by the possession (or lack thereof) of Gibraltar. The conflict is really about gaining and maintaining the upper hand in a battle that was physically fought centuries ago, but still is being waged politically. It is unlikely that the status of Gibraltar as an overseas territory will change anytime soon. Spain’s claim on the territory will probably never be realized due to the international community supporting the right to sovereignty of the Gibraltarian people, who have made it clear that they wish to either remain connected to the British or have total self-determination.


“CIA – The World Factbook – Gibraltar.” Central Intelligence Agency. Web. 13 Jan. 2015. < factbook/geos/gi.html>.

Heasman, D. J. “The Gibraltar Affair.” International Journal 22 (1966-1967): 265-77. Print.

Government of Gibraltar. Peter Caruana Submission to the UN 4th Committee. Gibnews. 04 Oct. 2011. Web. 23 Nov. 2011. < bin/>.

“British Empire: The Map Room: Europe: Gibraltar.” The British Empire. Web. 14 Jan. 2015. <>.

“Gibraltar: Little Territory, Lot at Stake.” Spain Exchange. Web. 17 Jan. 2015. <>.

Morris, D. S., and R. H. Haigh. Britain, Spain, and Gibraltar, 1945-1990: the Eternal Triangle. London: Routledge, 1992. Print.

Grant, Thomas D. “Gibraltar on the Rocks: the American Stake in a Sovereignty Dispute.” Policy Review (2002): 1-8. Print.

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About the author
Alexandria Costello
My name is Alexandria Costello and I am a master's student studying fluvial geomorphology and biogeography in the Pacific Northwest. I am an avid adventure traveler, reader, and studier of world politics, culture and history. Some of my favorite things include crafting, sampling vegetarian cuisine and playing with dogs.