Wednesday 25 January 2023

Looking in the mirror


In August, 1704, an Anglo-Dutch invasion force seized Gibraltar from the Spanish by force of arms, during the war of the Spanish Succession. Like most wars, the conflict was eventually resolved by a series of treaties, one of the consequences of which was that a weakened Spain ‘voluntarily’ during a process of ‘negotiation’ ceded the territory of Gibraltar to England. On that basis, the rock has been ‘British’ ever since, despite a few Spanish attempts to reclaim the territory. Given two and a half centuries to make their mark, aided by a certain degree of migration and cultural dominance, the British authorities got to a position by 1968 where a referendum of the inhabitants opted to remain British rather than see Gibraltar returned to Spain. It never really settled the question though – Spain continues to claim sovereignty on the basis that the territory was stolen from it.

Lest anyone think that this makes the Spanish look like the good guys, there is a not dissimilar history to Spain’s control of a series of outposts along the northern coat of Africa, such as Ceuta and Melilla – seize them first, and worry about getting agreement from the previous owners later. And the issue goes much wider than that – the legal basis for most of the boundaries in Europe is that territory was at some point seized by the current rulers and the new ownership subsequently legitimized by forcing the losers to sign treaties recognising the new boundaries or, in the case of territories swallowed up in their entirety (such as Wales, for instance), simply allowing the passage of time to legitimise the new ownership. It is the way that European states have behaved over centuries. Among the consequences of this long-standing approach are a series of unresolved boundary disputes (including, of course, Gibraltar itself) and most, if not all, of Europe’s independence movements.

In insisting that any peace negotiations with Ukraine should start by recognising the new boundaries created by military conquest (negotiations then being about the terms under which those boundaries are recognised, rather than about whether they should be recognised at all), Putin is simply following the traditional European playbook. Seize territory first, and legitimize it later. That doesn’t justify it, or make it right, it simply underlines the fact that a few decades of relative peace have not provided any sort of answer to the question of how and where boundaries should be drawn if not by the prior exercise of military force. There is no obvious ‘good’ outcome to the current war. Ceding territory to Russia confirms the validity of Putin’s approach, and may encourage further demands in future (to say nothing of what it means for the people in the territories concerned); providing ever more armaments of increasing sophistication and destructive capability to Ukraine in an attempt to enable the recapture of all stolen territory risks an escalation whose consequences could be catastrophic way beyond the boundaries of Ukraine itself. The only certainties are that the death and destruction will continue for as long as there is no resolution, and that there will have to be some negotiation eventually.

Nothing can or should blind us to the fact that Putin is responsible for the current war; resorting to military force rather than negotiation – and consultation with the people directly affected – should never be acceptable. But nothing happens without a context, and the context in which he launched the war is nothing new. The failure to find an alternative and civilised approach to determining statehood, nationality and boundaries, with the support of the people themselves, is never going to be down to one man at one time. There are politicians across Europe who ought to be taking a long hard look at the actions of their own states over the years as well as condemning Putin.

1 comment:

Spirit of BME said...

Excellent post.