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Did a Scandal-Plagued Politician Just Successfully Wag the Dog?

Spain's Mariano Rajoy picks a suspiciously perfect moment to revive a 300-year-old fight with England.
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The Royal Navy's base in Gibraltar. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

The Royal Navy's base in Gibraltar. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

When is a wag the dog scenario too obvious?

This week in Spain, several senior members of President Mariano Rajoy's Populist Party are scheduled to deliver statements on a complex, Watergate-like funding scandal involving the party's former treasurer. Caught with $50 million or so of party funds in a Swiss bank account, the treasurer is facing a long jail sentence. Mysteriously, though, his ledgers keep leaking to the local press, revealing the account, or some account, to be a slush fund used for monthly "topping up" payments to elected officials, including perhaps the president himself. For a country in its fifth year of an historic economic crisis, news that the ruling political party's senior members were cutting each other secret, five-figure annual bonuses has not gone over well.

What does a politician up against such charges do to save his skin? Declare war on England, of course. In a fantastic coincidence this week, just as the party heavies head to their day of judgement, the Spanish government has revived a 300-year-old argument with London. It's over the rock of Gibraltar, or really the whole territory of Gibraltar, which Spain granted to England in perpetuity in 1713.

What would happen to the drunk Essex tourists in Malaga if Spain and England fought a naval battle? Would gin prices rise? Would a conflict hurt Futbol Club Barcelona's chances of signing a long-coveted player from London's Chelsea?

Famous for a wedge-shaped rock, overlooking the straights where the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean, Gibraltar is actually a small isthmus dangling from Spain's extreme southwest coast. Most of the 30,000 residents are British citizens. But about 10,000 Spaniards cross into the U.K. territory for work each day, usually to provide support services like construction, cleaning houses, or overseeing parking lots. A border town, called unsubtly La Linea, is full of Spaniards who effectively work in the healthier British economy, not the flagging Spanish one, crossing back and forth daily.

Recently, the government of Gibraltar created a small artificial reef just off its shore, but well within its U.K.-controlled territorial waters. The goal, according to statements from the Gibraltar administration, was to increase fish populations. The Spanish opposed the reef, saying it would make life difficult in some unspecified way for Spanish fishermen setting off from their own marina, just a short sail away. They asked the British to pull the artificial reef out. The British told them (or we like to think they said it this way) to sod off.

With what can only be described as morbid delight, Spain immediately threatened to impose a 50 euro ($65.00) fee to enter or leave Gibraltar across the line separating the territory from the mainland. This is, of course, insane, because this $130 daily fee is most likely to hit Spain's own citizens hardest—the 10,000 people working odd jobs in the British territory. It's unlikely many earn enough to make paying the threatened fee worth it. The only way the fee makes sense is as an attempt to make life temporarily unlivable in Gibraltar, by trapping its citizens there, and draining the territory of many people who do the basic work to keep it running.

In addition to the threat, last week border guards on the Spanish side started checking cars going in and out of Gibraltar with unusual meticulousness. This continued into the current week, and has the effect of stalling the daily commute in and out of the territory to an average of six or seven hours. Each way.

It's also August, and temperatures near Gibraltar regularly top 90 degrees—not a great time to sit in your car all morning and all evening.

For London's side, the dust-up doesn't hurt British Prime Minister David Cameron much either. Military conflicts are reliable rally events in the U.K. as they are in the U.S. Right on schedule, Cameron ran a British naval force past Gibraltar, part of an exercise that had already been scheduled, but now read as a show of force. The Spanish also had naval ships nearby, so the whole thing got very 18th century very fast. Yes, the Spanish navy is still called The Armada. And yes, they remember Admiral Nelson in both London and Madrid.

A fun weekend ensued, with a lot of dark humor flying. What would happen to the drunk Essex tourists in Malaga if Spain and England fought a naval battle? Would gin prices rise? Would a conflict hurt Futbol Club Barcelona's chances of signing a long-coveted player from London's Chelsea? Could Spain scheme to lose, and encourage England to keep fighting north to the Pyrenees, then open a lot of Sainsbury's locations and give all the jobless young Spaniards cashier's jobs?

Sadly the work week began and the testimonies in the treasurer kickback case got underway. Madrid predictably turned up the volume on London, rattling sabres at a country that otherwise represents a healthy slice of Spain's current tourism income, a needed ally in European Union economic discussions, and hasn't really been an enemy since, indeed, they took Gibraltar by force three centuries ago.

So, is this a wag-the-dog scenario? We'll know in a week, after the corruption presentations end. The Gibraltar government says it's not backing down on its fishing reef, and Rajoy probably can't afford to put another 10,000 Spaniards out of work very much longer, if he hopes to bring down the unemployment rate in his cash-strapped nation before elections in just over a year. In favor of this being a real diplomatic dispute is recent history. This is certainly not the first dust-up between Spain and the U.K. over Gibraltar, and the last came as recently as 2002. But it wasn't nearly as long or as serious.

If it is a distraction ploy for the Spanish leadership, you have to admire everyone's moxie. There are a lot of ways to play a scandal, and this one, if that's what it is, seems to have worked really well. So far Gibraltar's been in the international news way more than Spain's alleged funding shenanigans have.

If the Rajoy government can keep that up for a week, until his deputies' testimonies are over, this will have been a good damage control exercise, at least internationally. If it goes on much longer, and saves him totally from the slush fund mess, then this little-known politician in a hamstrung nation would have proven better than most at saving his own bacon. Taunt Her Majesty's Navy to pass in revue, then flip it the bird. Anthony Weiner take note: That's the way to marcar paquete.