The relationship between UK and Gibraltar is complex, being both non-colonial yet perversely defined in colonial terms. These complexities become even more pronounced in the light of Brexit, explains Jennifer Ballantine Perera.

Of all of Britain’s former Imperial enclaves, Gibraltar’s interest in the 2016 Brexit referendum was bound to be keener than most – not only because of its strategic footprint in Europe, sharing as it does a border with Spain, but especially because of Spain’s long-standing territorial claim stretching back for over 300 years. This is a claim that now hangs on to the coattails of EU discussions on a Brexit deal, and in Gibraltar being described as a colony in EU legislation allowing UK nationals to travel to EU in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

Objections to the inclusion of a footnote denoting Gibraltar as a Crown Colony came fast from both Gibraltar and British government representatives. This was not out of a sense of disdain for the use of the term but because of the fact that Gibraltar has moved well beyond the colonial in its relationship with the UK. What then is this relationship, if the colonial is rejected?

Gibraltar remains in a bind with the UK albeit one now defined as non-colonial following the 2006 Constitution. Gibraltar and the UK act in unison in Brexit and in other matters, driven by a strategic partnership, loyalty to the Crown, and a deep-felt certainty by Gibraltarians of their Britishness. This is not to say that Gibraltar is being duped, adopting a false consciousness on the underpinnings of this relationship, but that the non-colonial suggests much more than a sweeping footnote.

As a British Overseas Territory, Gibraltar awaits ‘delisting’ on the United Nation’s agenda. Established in 1962, the UN’s Special Committee of Decolonization currently has 16 territories on its list, with Gibraltar remaining one of the most problematic for several reasons. Spain has always maintained its claim under Article X of the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht for the restoration of the territory which is kept alive by a reversionary clause which entitles Spain to reclaim Gibraltar should Britain ever relinquish sovereignty – an element which has greatly constrained the options of the UN when considering the prospects for decolonisation. Additionally, should the reversionary clause ever be triggered, Gibraltar would consider Spain’s appropriation of the territory as a neo-Imperial move, devastating as it would be in separating the British Gibraltarian community from its homeland. Constitutional reform has therefore been seen as the only means through which to not only diffuse a colonial bind but also bring a high degree of self-governing to Gibraltar bar independence.

Embedded, however, in Gibraltar’s constitution we find Peace Order and Good Governance (POGG) powers which are retained by the UK. POGG powers can lead to the suspension of democratic institutions in Gibraltar and direct rule from the UK should the need arise – an extreme move but one that holds Gibraltar captive to UK political will. At the same time, these powers uphold the final vestiges of colonialism which, in the final equation, may well need to remain in place: without this, formal decolonisation would take place and the automatic triggering of the reversionary clause in the Treaty of Utrecht. Formal decolonisation is therefore not a real option for Gibraltar as long as the reversionary clause remains in place.

Whilst Britain and Gibraltar have stated before the Special Committee that they have a constitutional relationship that justifies delisting, albeit without the granting of independence, neither Spain nor the UN accept this position. As such, a colonial tag remains given the impossibility of independence even when it is asked for. Importantly, colonialism is not a choice for Gibraltar but rather a definition that is being imposed upon it in the absence of an understanding of how territories such as Gibraltar remain confined within terms anchored in a historical past now far removed from a present which acknowledges self-determination.

Whilst bordering remains in terms of the triangulation of Britishness, the Empire and Spain, and on the significance of the non-colonial, it seems as if this very bordering is also a generator of the terms under which Gibraltarians construct and express their identity. It is also the case that this sense of bordering is a source of vulnerability because the process towards emancipation can only remain incomplete as long as Spain’s territorial claim remains alive. In effect, the extent to which the EU now backs Spain’s territorial claim suggests that it has also entered into the colonial debate by way of endorsing a neo-Imperial initiative in Europe. Equally, being silent on the non-colonial yet perversely colonially defined relationship between Gibraltar and the UK triggers questions over how the non-colonial functions.

These binds that are clearly colonial in their inception now serve to create an ambivalent space in which the colonial and the non-colonial co-exist. I wonder if we can consider these articulations as somehow akin to a reciprocal relationship that binds Gibraltar to the UK in a manner that resists simple explanation; a pact dependent on protection, trust on both sides, uncertainty on both sides, and geopolitics that far exceed Gibraltar’s footprint in the Mediterranean. An invisible yet palpable line is drawn between colonialism as understood in history, and this other, perhaps hybrid version as experienced today. This is a space in which the colonial and nascent post-colonial find expression informed as it is by a colonial period that has not yet entirely passed and a post-colonialism that has not quite and may never fully arrive.

It is therefore not a question of suggesting that Gibraltar is neither colonial nor post-colonial but rather that Gibraltar occupies a space where both coexist given the introduction of the non-colonial, fraught as it is with bordering and tensions for which a rule book is still being worked out. This is particularly pertinent to the Brexit dilemma, which heightens tension around Gibraltar’s relationship with the UK as negotiations press all the colonial buttons which have been submerged beneath the counter-current of the non-colonial.

Solutions remain elusive and change can only take place with nuanced readings on how relationships formally understood as colonial have transformed since the mid-20th century. Ultimately, moves to transplant the past onto the present can only lead to the perpetuation of a deterministic re-colonising discourse with no scope for an endgame, only eternal recurrence – and certainly not formal decolonisation.


Note: the above draws on the author’s chapter in Embers of Empire in Brexit Britain, (eds) Stuart Ward and Astrid Rasch, Bloomsbury Academic, 2019.

About the Author

Jennifer Ballantine Perera is the Director of the University of Gibraltar’s Institute for Gibraltar and Mediterranean Studies.



All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay (Public Domain).

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