A Tale of Two Enclaves: Contested Sovereignty in the Mediterranean – Gibaltrar and Ceuta

International Relations, Politics, Regional History

They lie on different continents, just a shade over 28 kilometres from each other, on either side of the Straits of Gibraltar, and the common denominator for both is Spain. Their situations are in some ways the mirror image of each other – one, Gibraltar, is a tiny piece of the United Kingdom within the natural geography of Spain, and the other, Ceuta, is a tiny piece of Spain within the natural geography of Morocco. Geologically, both landscapes are physically dominated by a large chunk of limestone rock, viz. the Rock of Gibraltar and Monte Hacho (both probably are heavily fortified). Another thing they have in common is that the sovereign state in possession of each enclave is fiercely determined that its unilateral hold over the territory is not negotiable.

Spain’s Places of Sovereignty
In discussing the tiny, controversial entities of Ceuta (known as Sebta in the Arab world) and Gibraltar, it is necessary to introduce a third entity into this binary equation – Melilla, because this territory located 225km east of Ceuta is linked to it by circumstance. Melilla, although overshadowed by the higher profile of Ceuta, shares its peculiar status – both are minuscule Spanish territories incongruously appended to the Moroccan state, which in turn claims sovereignty over both enclaves. And certainly, when it comes to advocating sovereignty over Ceuta and Melilla, both sides treat them as a “job lot”❈.

The following table is a snapshot of the comparative basic data on the three enclaves:

Comparative Table of the Spanish & British Enclaves

StatusOverseas TerritoryAutonomous CityAutonomous City
Area Size6.8km18.5km12.3km
Population32,194 (2015)82,376 (2011)78,476 (2011)
Ethnic CompositionGilbratarians, Other British, Maghrebis, Maltese, Spanish, Portuguese, Italians, IndiansArab Berbers, Spanish, Sephardic Jews, IndiansArab Riffian Berbers, Spanish, Sephardic Jews, Indians
Ceded to parent country 1713 (England, later UK)1668 (Spain)1668 (Spain)
Source: Wikipedia


Walking through the streets of Gibraltar it’s hard to miss the very visible signs of ‘British-ness’ or ‘Anglo-ness’ in the territory … red telephone boxes, Leyland double-decker buses, fish-and-chips shops, “English atmosphere” pubs, British bobbies, Union Jacks and the like. It is after all a BOT, a British Overseas Territory – and there are scarce few of those left on the world map! To the residents of the Rock these trappings are an unequivocal testimony to the loyalty of Gibraltarians to the United Kingdom and the British Crown.

Brexit for Gibraltar?
The vote last June by Britain and Northern Ireland to leave the EU was nowhere more momentous in the United Kingdom than in Gibraltar. Gibraltar, in contrast to most elsewhere in Britain, voted 96 per cent to stay in the Common Market[1]. Energised, the Spanish government seized on the Brexit opt-out to push the Gibraltar sovereignty issue again, calling for joint sovereignty of the two countries. With the unpalatable prospect for Gibraltar of being denied vital access to a single European market thanks to the British decision, Madrid believe (or hope) that they can leverage Gibraltarians into a rethink of their future options.

Gibraltar for its own part has argued for a special relationship post-Brexit with the European Union (as has Scotland)[2]. Madrid however has turned up the heat on Britain and its Iberian BOT, initiating tighter border controls, a deliberate go-slow affecting all vehicles and persons crossing into the British Overseas Territory from Spain. Already in 2013 the Spanish government threatened to charge motorists €50 to cross the border, restrict flights as well as investigate the tax status of 6,000 Gibraltar residents who own investment properties in Spain[3].

Gibraltar Chief Minister Picardo stressed that the implementation of a ‘hard’ border by Madrid would impose hardships on both sides, pointing out that 12,000 workers cross daily to work in the construction and services industries on “the Rock”[4]. But the stalemate persists and border-crossers continue to endure (up to) six-hour delays into and out of Gibraltar⊛.

The simmering tensions have aggravated underlying issues between the two European disputants in recent times … the Brits in 2014 asserted that there had been over 5,000 unauthorised incursions of Spanish ships into Gibraltar’s waters during 2013[5]. Local fishermen from Spain have complained that the construction of an artificial reef in Gibraltar in 2013 has imperilled the livelihoods of Spanish fishermen by depleting local fish stocks[6]. Spain has also objected to the presence of British warships in Gibraltar’s port as an unnecessary provocation[7].

The Rock-cum-Fortress
A minor incident involving a US nuclear submarine and warning flares in the Port of Gibraltar in April 2016 also drew Madrid’s displeasure (notwithstanding the fact that the port is a frequent maintenance stop for US subs)[8]. Some suspicions seem to be fed by prolonged antagonisms. Spaniards have expressed disquiet about the 1,400 foot high limestone Rock, a fortress-like structure in itself, hinting darkly at the possibility that the Gibraltarians may have fortified it[9].

Another point of Spanish aggravation on the frontier has been the issue of smuggling. A recurrent problem since the 1990s, Spain sees Gibraltar as the conduit for an estimated 1½ billion contraband cigarettes as well as drugs, mainly hashish (from Morocco) coming into Spain each year … resulting in a massive loss of customs revenues for Madrid who accuse the British and Gibraltarian authorities of turning a blind eye to the illicit activities[10].

Gibraltar – the historical issue
The Catholic King (Philip V of Spain) … yield to the Crown of Great Britain the full and entire propriety of the town and castle of Gibraltar together with the port, fortifications and forts thereun belonging … the said propriety to be held and enjoyed absolutely with all manner of right for ever❞.
[Article X of the Treaty of Utrecht, 13 July 1713]
(Note no reference in the legal document of Spain ceding the territorial waters of Gibraltar to the English victors)

Bay of Gibraltar ca.1704
The British secured the tiny enclave of Gibraltar during the Spanish War of Succession, having (with the Dutch) captured the peninsula from Spain early in the war and then been granted ownership of it as part of the spoils of war in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. The longevity of Britain’s occupation of Gibraltar is one the arguments used to validate possession of this remote, non-contiguous part of the UK. Spain counters that the English takeover in 1704 was as interlopers in a conflict provoked by a Spanish dynastic dispute, and the English claims on Gibraltar were limited by the Treaty and did not include the isthmus, the area of the current airport and Gibraltar’s territorial waters[11].

A choice of principles: Self-determination Vs territorial integrity
Britain argues that its right to retain Gibraltar rests primarily on the issue of self-determination, pointing to the fact that the citizens of Gibraltar twice voted by massive majorities to remain part of the UK (1967 and 2002)¤. Despite being embedded in an Hispanic milieu, the people of Gibraltar culturally self-identify as British.

The Spanish counter-argument has been that the validity of its sovereignty lies in the realm of territorial integrity. In support of this Spain has cited UN Resolution 1514 (XV) (the UN principle of territorial integrity): “any attempt✥ at the partial or total disruption of the national unity and the territorial integrity of a country is incompatible with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations”. Spain also argues that the passage of UN Principles of Decolonisation resolutions in the 1960s [2231 (XXI) and 2353 (XXII) ‘Question of Gibraltar’] affirms that the principle of territorial integrity prevails over Gibraltar’s right to self-determination[12].

Ceuta y Melilla
As already mentioned the parallels between Britain’s Gibraltar and Spain’s Ceuta in particular, are stark … two small but strategically positioned enclaves, one almost on the southernmost tip of Europe and the other on the north-western point of Africa, both tacked on to the end of a foreign state. The seeming irony of Spain’s passionate advocacy of its right to absorb Gibraltar into the nation-state is not lost on Morocco who has pointed out that the presence of Spanish military on Ceuta and Melilla poses a threat to Moroccan national security (and territorial integrity), and argues that its existence contravenes the UN principle of decolonisation[13].

Ciudad Autónoma de Ceuta (from Mon Abyla)
Spain’s basis for retaining its hold over Ceuta and Melilla rests on a number of criteria – longevity of occupation, right of conquest, the doctrine of Terra Nullis (historical justifications); national security and the territorial integrity of the state. As well Spain, like the UK, contends that the great bulk of its residents want to retain their Spanish status[14].

North Africa: Boundary disputes the way of the world
In North Africa, and in Africa generally, disputes between neighbouring states are legion (a 2015 estimate put it at close to 100 (active or dormant) border conflicts across the continent). And Morocco has had its fair share of them … with Spain over control of Western Sahara until Spain withdrew in 1975; and subsequently over the same territory embroiled together with Mauritania in a conflict against the Polisario Front (militaristic pro-independence group representing the Sahrawi people); in the 1960s contesting its border with Algeria[15].

A Spanish double standard?
Spain has gone to great pains to play down any perceived similarity that might be drawn between the situation of Gibraltar and that of its North African enclaves. Madrid portrays Gibraltar (officially a British Overseas Territory) as no more than a colonial remnant (“ripe for decolonisation”) … Gibraltar it argues should rightfully be politically reunited with Spain which it was part of until taken by force three centuries ago.

Ceuta and Melilla on the other hand, Madrid says, are integral parts of Spain and have been since the formation of the modern Spanish state, long predating the existence of modern Morocco as an independent, sovereign political entity (1956). The enclaves are semi-autonomous with the same status as the mainland (described by Madrid as “autonomous cities”), and under pressure Spain has hinted that it will offer Ceuta and Melilla greater autonomy[16]. Spain’s longevity argument could be countered by Moroccans who can point to an Arab presence in Ceuta and the other North African enclaves since the 8th century[17].

UN Committee 4: Non-Self Governing Territory status
Morocco’s claim on the Plazas, from a legal standpoint, is generally thought to be a weaker case than Spain’s on Gibraltar. Whilst the UN includes Gibraltar in a list of non-self governing territories (international entities whose eligibility for decolonisation the UN investigates each year), Ceuta and Melilla is not. This is because of the Barajas Spirit (Espiritu de Barajas), an agreement reached in 1963 between Spain’s General Franco and Morocco’s King Hassan II … Morocco agreed to deal with the Ceuta and Melilla issue bilaterally, with Spain separately, rather than submit it to the UN to be raised with other territorial disputes of the day such as Gibraltar. And because Morocco was preoccupied in the 1960s and ’70s with the recovery of southern territories (Sidi Ifni and Western Sahara), it delayed any action on Melilla and Ceuta and missed its chance to register them on the NSGT territories list for the UN to debate their future[18].

Ceuta/El Tarajal, a heavily-reinforced border wall
Spain, without pressure from a third-party, unsurprisingly, has played a straight bat to any attempts by Morocco to pursue the question of Ceuta and Melilla sovereignty. Spain fortified both enclaves and constructed razor wire border fences in the 1990s designed to stop illegal immigration and smuggling from Morocco. Impoverished Moroccans and other, mainly sub-Saharan Africans have long sought an entry point into Europe and the EU through the two Spanish autonomous cities. Because of the ongoing attempts to breach the border, authorities later reinforced the walls with a 6m high double fence structure and a “no man’s land” strip (a neutral zone) separating the Spanish outposts from Moroccan territory.

Border wars
The enhanced security hasn’t stopped desperate African migrants from trying to scale the border walls of Ceuta and Melilla (many have been shot and a number killed by unfriendly fire from security forces on both sides of the fence[19]) … since 2015 there has been an increase in the number of break-in attempts. As recently as January 2017 1,100 African migrants tried to storm the border in a violent confrontation with Spanish border guards[20].

Other incidents in recent years have kept the disputed territories issue on the boil. In 2002 a potential flash point erupted when a handful of Moroccan soldiers captured a tiny, uninhibited rocky outcrop named Perejil Island (near Ceuta and part of the disputed Plazas), leaving five cadets in charge of it. The cadets were summarily and peacefully ejected by elite troops and Spanish sovereignty swiftly reinstated[21]. The visit of King Juan Carlos I to Ceuta and Melilla in 2007 (the first reigning Spanish monarch to visit the Plazas) succeeded in stirring up further ill-will between Morocco and Spain over the territorial dispute[22].

PostScript: Gibraltar, Mission seemingly Impossible – what gain is there for Spain?
In the context of the United Kingdom’s commitment to Gibraltar and its people’s unwavering determination to stay subjects of the British Crown, the likelihood of Spain regaining its former territory in the foreseeable future is exceedingly slim✜. Why therefore does Spain persist in what seems to all appearances to be a futile exercise against such odds?[23]

1967 Gibraltar Poll: endorsement of UK rule
Madrid’s objections to “British Gibraltar” derive from a mixture of motives – that Gibraltar continues to be (in the words of former Spanish prime minister Felipe Gonzáles) “a pebble on the bottom of Spain’s shoe” is an impediment to the country’s sense of national pride. Gibraltar’s existence as the only colony remaining in Europe is an affront to Spanish nationalists, and its continuation in the hands of a historic foe a reminder of the loss of Spain’s once great power status. A further driver for Spain in its quest is the perception that Britain has breached the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht. Article X states that if ❝the Crown of Great Britain (decides to) grant, sell or by any means to alienate therefrom the propriety of the said town of Gibraltar, it is hereby agreed and concluded that the preference of having the sale shall always be given to the Crown of Spain before any others❞. When the UK offered the people of Gibraltar the opportunity to determine their own future by referendum in 1967, it was (according to Spain’s interpretation) reneging on its 1713 agreement to allow the Spanish government the “first right of refusal” if Britain were to renounce its own claim to the enclave. Furthermore, Spain contends that Britain’s expansion of its territory in Gibraltar on land and sea also contravenes the Treaty[24].

Aside from these matters, the status quo in Gibraltar represents financial disadvantages for Spain, obstacles that regime change in the enclave could potentially provide a windfall for Madrid, eg, Gibraltar’s long-time role as a “smuggler’s paradise” (principally narcotics), which as Spain expert Gareth Stockey of Nottingham University states, continues to be “a drain on Spanish resources”. Similarly, Spain have sought to draw international attention to Gibraltar and its reputation as a tax haven (OECD “Grey List” of countries lacking fiscal transparency). Low-taxing Gibraltar has had negative spin-offs for its Hispanic neighbour’s revenues both in the collection of taxes for individual citizens and for companies. Madrid has tried to turn the spotlight on to the Rock’s company tax dodges … Gibraltar has had over 30,000 registered businesses (roughly parity with the territory’s population!) and only a 10% corporate tax rate (until 2011 it charged no company taxes for many businesses), compared to a 30% tax in Spain[25].

❈ there are three other minor Spanish territories in North Africa, which together with Ceuta and Melilla are known collectively as Plazas de soberanía (“Places of Sovereignty”)
⊛ an even more disturbing prospect for Gibraltarians is the closure altogether of the border – many of them are old enough to recall the closure by President Franco in 1969, a blockade that ensued until 1982
¤ the 1967 referendum asking if the Gibraltarians were in favour of replacing British sovereignty with Spanish, returned a resounding 99.64% ‘no’ vote; the 2002 referendum with the question rephrased as “Do you approve of the principle that Britain and Spain should share sovereignty over Gibraltar?” again definitively said ‘no’, 98.97%
✥ ie, in this instance the UK’s insistence on self-determination for the enclave
✜ especially when you take into account the total lack of an irredentist impulse from within the Gibraltar community

[1] ‘Gibraltar: 96% vote to stay in EU’, Euobserver, 24-Jun-2016, www Euobserver.com
[2] B Reyes, ‘EU parliament hears contrasting views on Gibraltar and Brexit’, Gibraltar Chronicle, 31-Jan-2017, www.chronicle.gi
[3] V Barford, ‘What are the Competing Claims over Gibraltar?’, BBC News Magazine, 12-Aug-2013, www.bbc.com
[4] B Hague, ‘Gibraltar caught between a rock and a hard place after UK’s Brexit Vote’, ABC News, 13-Oct-2016, www.abc.net.au
[5] ‘Gibraltar profile – Timeline’, BBC News, 16-Mar-2015, www.bbc.com
[6] R Booth, Gibraltar frontier conflict causing frustration for locals’, The Guardian,
[7] Barford, loc.cit.
[8] R Faith, ‘Spanish-UK Dispute over Gibraltar Flares Up Again after Warning Shot Incident with US Nuclear Sub’, Vice News, 10-May-2016, www.news.vice.com.
[9] Barford, op.cit.
[10] R Aldrich & J Connell, The Last Colonies (1998)
[11] Barford, op.cit.. The tiny Balearic island Minorca also fell to Britain in the wash-up of the Treaty of Utrecht – though unlike Gibraltar it was returned to Spain via the Treaty of Amiens (1802)
[12] ibid.
[13] Morocco takes the view also that Spain’s determination to pursue its claim to Gibraltar adds substance to Morocco’s argument in respect of the Plazas, G O’Reilly & JG O’Reilly, Ceuta and the Spanish Sovereign Territories: Spanish and Moroccan Claims, (1994). This uncomfortable comparison was not lost on King Juan Carlos either – documents declassified in 2014 reveal that the Spanish monarch conceded to the British ambassador in 1982 that Spain was reluctant to push too hard on Gibraltar for fear of encouraging Moroccan claims on its territories, F Govan (1), ‘Spain’s King Juan Carlos told Britain: “we don’t want Gibraltar back” ‘, The Telegraph (London), 06-Jan-2014, www.telegraph.co.uk
[14] O’Reilly, loc.cit.
[15] G Oduntan, ‘Africa’s border disputes are set to rise – but there are ways to stop them’, The Conversation, 14-Jul-2015, www.theconversation.com
[16] F Govan (2), ‘The Battle over Ceuta, Spain’s African Gibraltar’, The Telegraph (London), 10-Aug-2013, www.telegraph.co.uk
[17] ‘International Court of Justice – Morocco/Spain’, (Rumun: Rutgers Model UN), www.idia.net
[18] S Bennis, ‘Gibraltar, Ceuta and Melilla: Spain’s unequal sovereignty disputes’, The New Arab, 28-Jun-2016, www.alaraby.co.uk
[19] N Davies, ‘Melilla: Europe’s dirty secret’, The Guardian, 17-Apr-2010, www.theguardian.com.
[20] ‘Migrants storm border fence in Spanish enclave of Ceuta’, BBC News, 01-Jan-2017, www.bbc.co.uk
[21] though it was summarily repulsed, the would-be coup was seen as testing Spain’s resolve to defend Ceuta and Melilla, ‘Perejil Island’, Wikipedia, en.m.wikipedia.org
[22] Govan 2, op.cit.
[23] if the highly improbable were to happen and Spain recover its long-lost province, an interested observer might be Barcelona … the Catalans lost their autonomy in the aftermath of the Utrecht Treaty and it has been speculated that the restoration of Gilbratar might trigger a new call for Catalonian independence, ‘The Economist explains … Why is Gibraltar a British territory?’ (T.W.) The Economist, 08-Aug-2013, www.economist.com
[24] ‘Four reasons Gibraltar should be Spanish’, The Local (es), 08-Aug-2013, news@thelocal.es
[25] ibid.; L Frayer, ‘Once a Tax Haven, Gibraltar Now Says It’s Low-Tax’, (NPR Parallels), 17-Apr-2016 (broadcast), www.npr.org