The Squabble That Never Ends: Britain and Spain Duel Over Gibraltar


Three hundred years ago, the rock of Gibraltar, rising dramatically out of the Spanish coastline, became a British territory. This has never sat well with Spain. And now recent disputes over the territorial waters around Gibraltar has sparked a naval standoff and a diplomatic row between the two countries.

Lauren Frayer traveled to Gibraltar to bring us the story.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: I'm at Spain's southern tip where the rock of Gibraltar casts a huge shadow over these city streets. There's what looks like a mile-long line of cars here waiting to cross the international border. I'm going on foot into British territory.


FRAYER: Hi, I'm Lauren.

REYES: I'm Brian. Nice to meet you.

FRAYER: Nice to meet you. I'm so sorry I'm late.

Once past customs, I ask Brian Reyes, news editor at the Gibraltar Chronicle, what's up with those long lines?

REYES: I mean, we've had peaks of queues six, seven hours. Yesterday, to get out, it took two and a half hours.

FRAYER: Why? Just at the...

REYES: Because they're checking every car, basically. And they're doing it very slowly.

FRAYER: Spain says it's checking for tobacco smuggling, but increased border checks are Spain's way of retaliating in a dispute over nearby waters, Reyes says.

REYES: Fishing with nets is illegal in Gibraltar waters. The Gibraltar government enforced that law, to the anger of the Spanish fishermen. Britain claims three miles of water around the rock. Spain says Gibraltar has no waters. That's the key to this issue. It's not about fishing. It's about jurisdiction.

FRAYER: London and Madrid recently summoned one another's ambassadors when a Spanish research boat motored into those waters. Rival navies face off almost weekly, though no shots have been fired for more than 300 years. Still, the hostility reinforces Gibraltarians' British identity.

DANIELLE PRATT: We have your typical Sunday roast with your Yorkshire puddings, your cauliflower cheese, your vegetables. And we also do the typical fish and chips here as well, with mushy peas. That's a (unintelligible) pub's favorite here.

FRAYER: Pub waitress Danielle Pratt serves up quintessentially British fare, but only a fraction of Gibraltar's 30,000 residents, all British citizens, actually have ancestors from the British Isles. Most are descendants of Spanish, Portuguese or Italian traders, like Patrick Sacarello, who runs a coffee house his family started here in the 19th century.

PATRICK SACARELLO: The first Sacarello had a sort of little sort of sailing boat where carried goods around the Mediterranean. There is a comparison with the merchants - sort of city of Venice. And this Italian influence can be seen also in the stratas, the arches, the doorways, combined with English colonial architecture.

FRAYER: To Madrid, this peninsula, physically attached to Spain, is a colony left over from the British Empire. But Gibraltarians have voted twice, overwhelmingly to stay British. The most recent referendum was 98 percent in favor, says Tito Vallejo, a retired Gibraltarian soldier.

TITO VALLEJO: Of all the people who voted, only 44 people voted to go with Spain. And they say that those were mistakes. (Laughing) They voted in the wrong box by mistake. That's what they say.

FRAYER: There's just something about this 200 million-year-old chunk of limestone, says newspaperman Brian Reyes.

REYES: The identity of this people is intimately linked to this rock.

FRAYER: But it's just a rock. I mean, like...

REYES: (Laughing) But, you know, it's a place. It's a home. It's a pretty iconic rock, not just a rock.

FRAYER: I joined a tour group to the top.

MARK VARJAQUE: OK, guys, now we're going to the highest point, 1,400 feet, 426 meters. You'll be able to take pictures of the views and the monkeys, but do not touch the monkeys 'cause they bite. Yeah.

FRAYER: No Gibraltar's story is complete without a mention of Europe's only wild monkey population brought here by either British shoulders or Arab traders centuries ago.


FRAYER: Hundreds of them chomp on carrots, scamper over the rock and then nap in the sun. Tour guide Mark Varjaque has a theory.

VARJAQUE: The legend is that whenever the last monkey disappears from Gibraltar, we'll give this back to Spain. But I don't think that's going to happen.

FRAYER: Because, he says, the monkeys have been reproducing like crazy.

For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Gibraltar.

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