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Gibraltar sovereignty referendum, 2002

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Gibraltar sovereignty referendum
On 12 July 2002 the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, in a formal statement in the House of Commons, said that after twelve months of negotiation the British Government and Spain are in broad agreement on many of the principles that should underpin a lasting settlement of Spain's sovereignty claim, which included the principle that Britain and Spain should share sovereignty over Gibraltar.

Do you approve of the principle that Britain and Spain should share sovereignty over Gibraltar?
LocationGibraltar Gibraltar
Date7 November 2002
Votes %
Yes 187 1.03%
No 17,900 98.97%
Valid votes 18,087 99.51%
Invalid or blank votes 89 0.49%
Total votes 18,176 100.00%
Registered voters/turnout 20,678 87.9%
Coat of Arms of the Government of Gibraltar.svg
This article is part of a series on the
politics and government of
Flag of Gibraltar.svg
Gibraltar portal
Part of a series on the
History of Gibraltar
Coat of arms of Gibraltar
Flag of Gibraltar.svg
Gibraltar portal

The Gibraltar sovereignty referendum of 2002 was a referendum which was called by the Government of Gibraltar and was held on 7 November 2002 within the British overseas territory on a proposal by the UK Government to share sovereignty of the territory between Spain and the United Kingdom. The result was a rejection of the proposal by a landslide majority, with only just over one per cent of the electorate in favour.

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Gibraltar, on the southern end of the Iberian Peninsula, has a long and complex history. Throughout the centuries many have coveted the land; and who wouldn’t, the Rock of Gibraltar boasts panoramic views of the Mediterranean Sea and North African coast and is strategically located at the gateway to the Atlantic its location, location, location at its best! Today, at just 6.7 square kilometres and home to over 30,000 people Gibraltar is a British Overseas Territory. So why is a small piece of land on the southern end of Spain, one of the last remaining colonies of the British Empire? We pick up our story in October 1700. The Kingdom of Spain, with Charles the Second on the throne, controls Gibraltar. Generations of royal inbreeding had left Charles physically, emotionally, and mentally retarded as well as infertile. He died childless on the first of November leaving Spain without a clear Heir. European powers had seen this coming, and had attempted to make diplomatic arrangements. There were three competing claims: from Austria, France and Bavaria. Bavaria being the weakest of the three was preferred by European leaders. King Louis the 14th of France colluded with his rival William of Orange, who was both Stadtholder of the Dutch Republic and the King of England. The two signed the Treaty of Den Haag to resolve the issue. They proposed dividing the Spanish Kingdom, which included holdings in Italy, the Southern Netherlands, and colonies in the Americas and Pacific between the three houses but Joseph Ferdinand of Bavaria was suggested the heir of the bulk of the Spanish Empire preserving the balance of power between France and Austria. Quite to everyone’s surprise, however, the health stricken Spanish King outlived Joseph, undermining the whole treaty. Louis and William reconvened and signed another treaty (of London), under the new arrangement; Archduke Charles from Austria was to inherit the Spanish Crown, with the Italian holdings going to France. However the Spanish didn’t want to see their Empire split, and refused to sign. As did the Austrians, who desired the entire inheritance for themselves and furthermore were more interested in Italy than Spain. In one final effort to find a diplomatic solution Charles, on his deathbed, named his grandnephew Philip, the second-eldest grandson of King Louis as Heir to the Spanish Crown. As Philip was not directly in line for the Throne of France his advisors hoped this would ease tensions and stabilise the power dynamics across the continent. This left Louis with a decision to make. He could follow through with his agreement and forbid his grandson from claiming the throne or he could accept the will of Charles of Spain and back Philips claim Both option appeared to lead to war, and accepting the Austrian claim would leave France with nothing, so he choose the latter. The growing dominance of Europe’s big blue blob worried the other European powers. The Grand Alliance that had fought France in Nine Years' War was reconvened and Britain, The Dutch Republic, and Austria declared war on France on the 15th of May 1702. The War of the Spanish Succession had begun. While the majority of the land offence took place to the north of the Pyrenees; the British sent a force to the Mediterranean to carry out a diversionary naval offensive. This took the form of an attack on Gibraltar, after heavy bombardment, British marines attacked the town, and the Spanish surrendered shortly after. Although the Spanish attempted to retake Gibraltar they failed to do so before the end of the war. Legend has it, that during one such attempt Spanish soldiers attempted to sneak into position to launch a surprise attack, only the monkeys that inhabit the Rock spoilt the surprise. This has led to the notion that as long as the monkeys remain on Gibraltar so will the British However, during the war, the King of Austria who was by way, the Holy Roman Emperor and his successor died, leaving the Empire to Charles. The prospect of a union of the Austrian and Spanish crowns was just as undesirable as a unified Bourbon monarchy of France and Spain. Peace would come with the Treaty of Utrecht; Philip was accepted by Britain and Austria as King of Spain. In exchange for guarantees that the crowns of France and Spain would not be unified and Spain ceded lands to the Austrians and British, crucially for our story, Gibraltar was officially ceded to Britain, but Spain resented the loss of territory. Spain attempted to recapture Gibraltar during the Anglo-Spanish War of 1727 to 1729, and again during the American War of Independence; but they failed to retake the region. Gibraltar’s strategic value became more apparent with time. Allowing the Allies to control naval traffic into and out of the Mediterranean Sea during war and during peace she was a useful port for trade vessels sending cargo east via Egypt. In 1954 the Queen visited Gibraltar, this angered Spain’s fascist Dictator General Franco who responded by imposing increasingly stringent restrictions on trade and the movements with Gibraltar. But this didn’t weaken the resolve of the population to remain British as intended, the isolation did quite the opposite, and now they say that Gibraltarians are more British than the British. After the war the United Nations was established, and opposed to imperialism. The UN called for decolonisation throughout the world, including Gibraltar. But while other British colonies moved through self-governance and then onto independence, that option was unavailable to Gibraltar. The Treaty of Utrecht contains a reversion clause where if Britain is to give up her claim on Gibraltar, it will be returned to Spain. But the UN push for decolonisation reignited Spanish efforts to recover the territory. The result was a referendum in 1967 where Gibraltarians were asked to choose between Spain and Britain. The results were resounding, with over 12,000 opting to maintain the current relationship with Britain, to only 44 supporting a union with Spain, less than the number of invalid or blank votes. The Francoist regime responded to the defeat by ramping up pressure on the dependency and closed the border. While Gibraltar moved to establish a constitution that agreed the British would not impose a solution on Gibraltarians and acknowledged their right to self-determination. After General Franco's death, Spain sought to join the European Economic Community, and needed British support. The Lisbon Agreement was the first of a series between the British and Spanish Governments intended to resolve their differences over Gibraltar. These talks eventually led to the reopening of the border; but didn’t quite settle the issue. Eventually, in 2002, Britain and Spain proposed to share sovereignty, but the government of Gibraltar, excising their now constitutional right, put it to a referendum and the agreement was rejected 17,900 to 187. It seems, given their options, the Gibraltarians wish to remain a British dependency, but Britain’s impending departure from the European Union has once again brought up the issue, and Gibraltar finds itself again as a pawn in a bigger European game.



A poster from the campaign
A poster from the campaign

Although Gibraltar was ceded to the British Crown under Article X of the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), Spain has wished to recover the territory, first by force and then by restrictions and diplomacy. Recovering sovereignty remains a stated objective of successive Spanish Governments.[1]

In July 2001, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw began discussing the future of Gibraltar with Spain,[2] and a year later, in July 2002, following secret talks with Spain[3] announced that "the UK was willing to share sovereignty of Gibraltar with Spain" and that "the final decision would rest with the people of Gibraltar in a referendum."[4]

HM Government of Gibraltar then decided to hold its own referendum on 7 November 2002 regarding the proposal of shared sovereignty with Spain, which it strongly opposed. This pre-empted any referendum planned to be held after the negotiations between Britain and Spain had concluded. Jack Straw described the Gibraltar referendum as "eccentric", and Britain's Foreign Office announced it would not recognize its results.[5]

Although Straw had felt confident enough to announce that there had been talks on joint sovereignty, a number of issues still remained to be resolved. Firstly, Spain was insisting on a time element for a full transfer of sovereignty to Spain. Secondly, Spain would not agree to give Gibraltar a referendum on either joint sovereignty or self-determination. Finally, Spain wanted a greater role than simply joint use of Gibraltar as a military base.[6] Researcher Peter Gold argued in a 2009 paper that these disagreements made the possibility of an agreement being finalised remote.[7]

Referendum question

The Gibraltar Referendum 2002 asked the voters of Gibraltar their opinion in the following words:

On 12 July 2002 the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, in a formal statement in the House of Commons, said that after twelve months of negotiation the British Government and Spain are in broad agreement on many of the principles that should underpin a lasting settlement of Spain's sovereignty claim, which included the principle that Britain and Spain should share sovereignty over Gibraltar.

Do you approve of the principle that Britain and Spain should share sovereignty over Gibraltar?[8]

permitting a simple YES / NO answer (to be marked with a single (X)).


Speech by Peter Caruana, QC, after the announcement of the result of the 2002 Referendum
Gibraltar sovereignty referendum, 2002
Choice Votes %
Referendum failed
17,900 98.48
Yes 187 1.03
Valid votes 18,087 99.51
Invalid or blank votes 89 0.49
Total votes 18,176 100.00
Registered voters and turnout 20,678 87.9
Source: New York Times, "Gibraltar Rejects Power-Sharing Between Britain and Spain"[9]

Peter Caruana, the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, said of the result: "We say to the British Government: Take stock of this referendum result, it's the will of the people of Gibraltar", and that the planned path to joint sovereignty was a "dead end road for everyone".[2]


The Government of Gibraltar invited a panel of observers headed by Gerald Kaufman MP. Their report stated that "The observers were extremely impressed with the organisation of the referendum and particularly welcome that the role of the observers was integral to the process, as distinct from the more passive role of observers in other elections. The meticulous way in which votes were counted exceeded requirements and went beyond requirements adopted for UK elections".[10]


Reaction in Spain was mostly negative, with El País calling the referendum a "dishonest consultation",[11] while Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs Ana Palacio described it as "illegal" and "against all the UN resolutions".[12] However, El País also said that "no Spanish Government, neither this one or its predecessors, has done enough to make joint sovereignty or integration with Spain an attractive prospect".[11]

In London, Jack Straw was criticised by the Commons foreign affairs committee, whose report stated that he was wrong to agree to joint sovereignty with Spain, when this was unacceptable to the people of Gibraltar. The report also emphasised the importance of the referendum, which represented the views of Gibraltarians. The Telegraph said "the people of Gibraltar today overwhelmingly rejected the principle of Britain sharing sovereignty of the Rock with Spain".[2]


Prior to the referendum the British Government repeatedly stated that it would not recognise the outcome.[13] After the referendum Gibraltar's Government increasingly felt it could demand a say in its future in any talks with Spain.[14] Under an initiative originally started in 1999, the Government of Gibraltar together with opposition parties negotiated a new constitution for Gibraltar. The major sticking point in negotiations was the desire by Gibraltar politicians for a preamble whereby the "British Government ought to commit itself to the question of self-determination in unequivocal terms."[15] The British Government initially sought to avoid doing so but when there was a cabinet reshuffle and a new foreign secretary, the new incumbent was more willing to listen to the views of Gibraltar officials. There was a shift in the British Government policy on Gibraltar that effectively recognised the preamble to the 1969 constitution was sacrosanct, that any discussions on sovereignty would involve Gibraltar and future discussions on sovereignty with Spain would require an improved relationship between Spain and Gibraltar.[16] The British Government compromised recognising its commitment in the 1969 constitution that it would not negotiate with Spain without the consent of people of Gibraltar. The compromise lead to the Gibraltar Constitution Order 2006 in which the powers of the Governor were reduced and transferred to local officials and a bill of "fundamental rights and freedoms" enshrined in the constitution.[17] Although this had cross-party support in Gibraltar, when submitted to a referendum on adoption a significant no vote emerged. Although reasons were diverse, there were two aspects to objections;[15] firstly the commitment to retaining British sovereignty was seen to not be sufficiently secure,[15] secondly the new constitution was deemed not advanced enough in allowing the exercise of the right to self-determination.[17]

See also


  1. ^ "Spanish statement on Gibraltar". MAE. 17 February 2012.
  2. ^ a b c Andrew Sparrow and Isambard Wilkinson (8 November 2002). "Gibraltar rejects Straw's deal". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 17 February 2016.
  3. ^ Wright, Oliver (24 January 2012). "UK came close to sharing Gibraltar with Spain". The Independent. Retrieved 21 February 2016.
  4. ^ "House of Commons". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). Hansard. 12 July 2002.
  5. ^ "Rock referendum 'eccentric' – Straw". BBC News. 26 July 2002.
  6. ^ "How Gibraltar 2002 referendum foundered plan for joint-sovereignty with Spain". Mercopess. 5 December 2013. Retrieved 17 February 2016.
  7. ^ *Gold, Peter (March 2009). "The Tripartite Forum of Dialogue: Is this the Solution to the 'Problem' of Gibraltar?". Mediterranean Politics. Taylor and Francis. 14 (1): 79–97. doi:10.1080/13629390902747475.
  8. ^ Stockey, Gareth; Grocott, Chris (2012). Gibraltar: A Modern History. U of Wales P. p. 116. ISBN 9780708325155.
  9. ^ Daly, Emma (8 November 2002). "Gibraltar Rejects Power-Sharing Between Britain and Spain". The New York Times. Retrieved 17 February 2016.
  10. ^ "Gibraltar Referendum Observer's Report" (PDF). Report by the Committee of Observers. November 2002. p. 12. Retrieved 19 September 2015.
  11. ^ a b "Gibraltar referendum result in quotes". BBC News. 8 November 2002.
  12. ^ "El Gobierno dice que la consulta es contraria a las resoluciones de la ONU". El País (in Spanish). 9 November 2002.
  13. ^ Peter Gold (January 2005). Gibraltar: British Or Spanish?. Psychology Press. pp. 310–. ISBN 978-0-415-34795-2.
  14. ^ *Dodds, Klaus (December 2004). "Solid as a Rock? Britain and Gibraltar". BBC History: 18–21.
  15. ^ a b c Miller, Vaughne (ed.), "Gibraltar: diplomatic and constitutional developments" (PDF), HOUSE OF COMMONS LIBRARY, retrieved 2011-02-16
  16. ^ Gold, 2005, p.317
  17. ^ a b Stephen Constantine (1 September 2009). Community and identity: the making of modern Gibraltar since 1704. Manchester University Press. p. 404. ISBN 9780719080548. Retrieved 6 February 2011.
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