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Shadows of the Empire

It has an area slightly larger than the National Mall in Washington, D.C., a population of 28,000, and a gross domestic product about the size of a modest U.S. corporation's annual revenue. It also happens to be at the center of the biggest diplomatic crisis in the entire European Union. I am talking about none other than the Rock of Gibraltar, one of the last remaining outposts of the British Empire.

If you are confused about why a tiny peninsula on the coast of Spain that conjures images of medieval lore should cause such an uproar in the modern world, you are not alone. And yet this has been an uproar almost 300 years in the making. It all has to do with the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, one of those obscure peace deals studied in high school history class and then promptly forgotten after the exam. This treaty obliged Spain to permanently cede Gibraltar to Britain, and, to this day, the Rock remains a British overseas territory.

Well now Spain wants it back, badly, and Britain is equally determined to give it back. The only problem is that the Gibraltarians want to remain under British rule. In 1967, when the last referendum on the issue was held, 99 percent of the voters opposed the idea of a handover. I personally don't know of any other vote, with the possible exception of Saddam Hussein's last ultra-democratic "re-election," in which 99 percent of the voters agreed on anything.

The colony's popularly chosen government has demanded that London consult with it before unceremoniously ending its commitment to the Rock. This commitment is espoused in this simple promise: "Her Majesty's Government will never enter into arrangements under which the people of Gibraltar would pass under the sovereignty of another state against their freely and democratically expressed wishes."

Considering that 25,000 residents recently marched in support of staying British (not quite 99 percent, but close), it's pretty clear what their freely expressed wishes are. On the other hand, the territory is geographically an appendage of Spain, much like Hong Kong is of China. This is not a simple decision by any means, but here is something that is clearly unacceptable: Making a decision about the future of almost 30,000 people without their consent, which is regrettably what London apparently intends to do.

In all fairness, the fears of the colony's residents over reunification with Spain are blown way out of proportion. In 1967, when Gen. Franco was doing everything possible to make the lives of Gibraltarians unbearable, such sentiment was understandable. But now, with Spain a democracy for two decades and cross-border trade growing daily, it is a little irrational. London's argument for the handover is basically, "How bad can it be?"

I agree. It won't be bad at all. It will certainly be no worse than the handover of Hong Kong, especially if some kind of self-governing arrangement is agreed upon. "One country, two systems" is not a very appropriate term here, because Gibraltar will not need to be protected from a quasi-Communist regime.

Despite all this, the right of people to choose their government must not be infringed, and one has to wonder whether Tony Blair truly understands this. His main reason for returning the Rock is not his love for Spain but simple realpolitik. He needs Spanish support in the European Union against the German-French alliance, and if giving up Gibraltar is what it takes, then so be it. In other words, Blair is playing politics, pure and simple.

Spain's own games with Gibraltar, even after Franco's death, have also not been very helpful in proving its good intentions to the colony's residents. Lengthy border delays, water cutoffs and limits on telephone links, all of these petty annoyances supposed to persuade Britain to give up the Rock, have naturally had a radicalizing effect.

Moreover, Madrid's policy on its own colonial outposts, located just across from Gibraltar in Morocco, must be considered very disingenuous. It has retained these territories since Morocco's independence from France in 1956 and is now refusing to hand them back. If this is not hypocrisy for a country that shouts about the importance of territorial integrity on its own coast, what is?

This whole debacle is rife with corruption, duplicity and political infighting. Gibraltar should stay British because that is what an overwhelming majority there wants. Its small size does not render the principle of self-determination any less valid. But regardless of how this problem is resolved, it needs to be resolved quickly. It is distracting Europe's attention at a time when historic constitutional reforms are being proposed in the EU. If Madrid and London can't get out of this mess, one has to question the competence of their leaders in dealing with the big decisions to come.

Pavel Molchanov is a Trinity senior. His column appears regularly.

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