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Gibraltar is the only remaining colony in Europe. This situation is a vestige of the dynastic conflicts of the Ancien Régime. The site was occupied in 1704, during the War of the Spanish Succession, and its inhabitants were forced to move to the neighbouring town of San Roque.

On 13 July 1713, pursuant to Article X of the Treaty of Utrecht, the Spanish Crown ceded “the town and castle of Gibraltar, together with the port, fortifications, and forts thereunto belonging” to Great Britain. Spain did not cede the isthmus, the adjacent waters, or the overlying airspace, which are spaces under Spanish sovereignty. More than half of the isthmus—its southern part—was illegally occupied by the United Kingdom during the nineteenth century, and a fence was built in 1909. Spain has always highlighted that the occupation of the isthmus is unlawful and contrary to international law, and has therefore always called for its unconditional return. Nor does Spain recognize the fence as an international border, considering it a demarcation line. For this reason, the customs and police checkpoint at La Línea de la Concepción does not correspond to the borderline recognised by Spain, in accordance with the Treaty of Utrecht. 

Over the years, the United Nations has established a doctrine on the colonial status of Gibraltar. According to this doctrine, Gibraltar is today a non-self-governing territory pending decolonization. As such, it is not part of the territory of the United Kingdom, which is its administering power and is responsible for its external relations. The existence of a colonial situation in Gibraltar violates the territorial integrity of Spain and must be brought to an end through bilateral negotiations between the United Kingdom and Spain. Negotiations on sovereignty are the exclusive responsibility of the Governments of Spain and of the United Kingdom.​

Minister José Manuel Albares and Maroš Šefčovič, Vice-President of the European Commission, Head of the European Negotiation Team for the Agreement on Gibraltar following Brexit. Brussels, January 2022

The United Nation's call to resolve the sovereignty dispute through bilateral negotiations resulted in the Lisbon (1980) and Brussels (1984) Declarations between Spain and the United Kingdom. These negotiations are stalled for the time being, despite Spain's repeated requests for their resumption.

Since European Union law applies to the Rock by virtue of the United Kingdom's EU membership, the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union necessarily implies the departure of Gibraltar, as well. To ensure an orderly departure, the Withdrawal Agreement included a Protocol on Gibraltar, which expired on 31 December 2020, except for the provisions on citizens' rights, which remain in force sine die. Spain and the United Kingdom also negotiated an international agreement on taxation and protection of financial interests relating to Gibraltar, which entered into force on 4 March 2021, and four Memoranda of Understanding on Citizens' Rights, Cooperation in Police and Customs Matters, Cooperation on Environmental Matters, and Tobacco and Other Products.

 José Manuel Albares, together with his British counterpart, Liz Truss, during her official visit to Spain. December 2021

On 31 December 2020, Spain and the United Kingdom reached an understanding on Gibraltar, which should serve as the basis for a future Agreement between the European Union and the United Kingdom on Gibraltar. The ultimate objective of that understanding and of the future Agreement between the European Union and the United Kingdom on Gibraltar is the creation of an area of shared prosperity between the territory of Gibraltar and the Campo de Gibraltar region. Nothing in that understanding or in the future Agreement implies or shall imply a change of Spain’s position in relation to the sovereignty or jurisdiction of Gibraltar. Any EU agreement with the UK on Gibraltar requires the prior agreement of Spain, as recognised in the declaration of the European Council (Article 50) and Commission on the territorial scope of the future agreements, made at the European Council meeting of 24 and 25 November 2018.

The main documents relating to the dispute over Gibraltar are as follows:

  • The Treaty of Utrecht, signed on 13 July 1713, which, in Article X, ceding to the British Crown “the full and entire propriety of the town and castle of Gibraltar, together with the port, fortifications, and forts thereunto belonging”.

  • Resolution 2070 of the 20th General Assembly of the United Nations, adopted on 16 December 1965, inviting the governments of Spain and the United Kingdom for the first time to begin talks without delay on the sovereignty of Gibraltar.

  • Resolution 2353 of the 22nd General Assembly of the United Nations, adopted on 19 December 1967, stating that any colonial situation which partially or completely destroys the national unity and territorial integrity of a country is incompatible with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and especially with paragraph 6 of General Assembly Resolution 1514 (XV) on general decolonisation.

  • Resolution 2429 of the 23rd General Assembly of the United Nations, adopted on 18 December 1968, calling on the United Kingdom to end the colonial situation in Gibraltar by 1 October 1969.

  • The Lisbon Declaration signed on 10 April 1980, setting out the commitment of the two governments to resolve the problem of Gibraltar in a spirit of friendship and in accordance with the relevant United Nations resolutions.

  • The Brussels Declaration signed on 27 November 1984, laying the foundations for a new negotiating process, including sovereignty issues.​

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