If you thought you were going to get a comprehensive understanding of Britain’s recent disavowal of the European Union here then you, dear reader, have been duped by a pun masquerading as clickbait.
I can always count on puns.
I am not qualified to explain or predict the impacts of Britain’s exit, but I am barely qualified to tell you a very interesting story about an artificial reef in the Strait of Gibraltar. This reef, just off the shore of one of Britiain’s fourteen British Overseas Territories (a.k.a. colonies), Gibraltar, sits on the border of Spain’s territorial waters. Gibraltar itself is a point of tension in Anglo-Spanish relations, a strategic peninsula guarding the mouth of the Mediterranean attached to mainland Spain but ceded to Britain “in perpetuity.” (The Moors who originally governed the area after the Phonecians, but after 1712 the territory was formally British.) But, as ever, marine territorial disputes prove more complicated the vague borders we can create with walls.
British claims of sovereignty over Gibraltar seem to be a question only for Spain. Citizens of Gibraltar rejected Spanish claims of sovereignty with referendums in 1967 and 2002. So what does Brexit have to do with it? Interestingly, Spain was pretty much ready to reclaim Gibraltar and make a territorial bid once Britain disavowed the EU, the Spanish government purported, “the very next day.” The Chief Minister of Gibraltar Fabian Picardo warned the UK that if Brexit went ahead Spain could “pounce on us” also stating that “it is safer and more secure for Gibraltar to remain in the EU”. When Brexit rolled around, Gibraltar overwhelmingly voted to remain in the Union with 95.9% of the voting public. They following day the Spanish foreign minister called for joint Spanish/British control of the peninsula.
What do artificial reefs have to do with it? Well, Gibraltar’s artifiical reef exposes trivialities in the way we claim space. It’s not a particularly remarkable reef, design-wise. First tires, cars, and after failed barges, the thousand tonne ‘482’ act as repurposed substrate. It’s the first artificial reef in Europe, primary biologist Dr. Eric Shaw purports. But it was only in 2013 that Dr. Shaw installed small porous concrete blocks as artificial reefs off the shore of Gibraltar, following the spreading standard of site-specific designed materials over repurposed substrate like tires or boats.
And it was only in 2013 that Spain claimed these structures were an active encroachment on Spanish sovereignty. Sovereignty, the authority of a state to govern itself, is a construct unto itself, which makes room for creative standards for sovereignty like coups, divine right, ethnic nationalism, or even the territory delineated by an artificial reef. After Dr. Shaw installed the 72 blocks Spain alleged that the reef project violated EU environmental regulations, subsequently moving into Gibraltar’s territorial waters and increasing step-up border checks that led to hours-long waits for people entering and leaving the Rock. The EU ultimately asserted Gibraltar’s rights to these spaces, but Spain’s affront continued.The installation of the reef, Spain claimed, justified incursions into these purportedly ambiguous territories.
Furthermore, the Spanish government claimed the blocks were threat to Spanish fish catches. Spain, it’s perhaps pertinent to note, consumes twice as much seafood as any other European nation, and is most commonly fined for fishing outside of their own territorial waters. The Spanish government accused these blocks of ripping fishing nets, for which they sought compensation with a tax on visitors into Gibraltar from Spain, and closing Spain’s airspace for flights inbound to Gibraltar. As Simon Dalby points out, pinpointing a threat – even from an inanimate object, to a fishery – is grounds for geopolitics. It is the “crucially important power to define danger, and about the ability to describe the world in ways that specify appropriate political behaviours [sic ;)] in particular contexts to provide ‘security’ against those dangers.”(Rethinking Geopolitics, 295) Now, as Gibraltar’s sovereignty comes into question with Brexit, it exposes the artificiality of territorial claims on land as much as offshore across the planet.
As is increasingly pertinent in the South China Sea, sovereignty and ‘claimable’ space are inherently artificial practices. Borders are man-made, a conceit we take for granted when we can claim an island or, say, build a wall. Borders only trace bloodshed and compromise. (Perhaps there needs to be a sixth sovereign state of being, where you are simple subject to the land.) But an ocean is not a stable space in which to draw a line, and the case of Gibraltar points out the utility of artificial reefs in sovereignty claims. It is their very materiality that makes artificial reefs vaulable in an otherwise constantly changing ecology; coral itself is simultaneously animal, vegetable, mineral, a living but manipulatable, designable thing, both habitat and inhabitant. With less nuance, the Chinese smother coral with concrete, Gibraltar and Spain push an already unstable border with blocks of concrete, Brunei and Malaysia squabble over who can send recreational divers to certain shipwrecks — we install items we think of as “claimable” because the sea itself is not.
Personally, I think of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. I think of imported ideas fighting for belief until there is blood, or steel, or someone acts, and they make that idea real. But at the the end of the day the land is the land, the sea is the sea, and (as Dalby points out in “Ecology, Security, and Change in the Anthropocene”) we as a species are finally subject to the material reality of a world we don’t understand — even if we can impact carbon cycles, currents, our climate. Domination of nature has always been part of Western imperialism – maybe I shouldn’t be so intrigued by Gibraltar. But as Britain, and by extension, Gibraltar, experience the intangible fallout from leaving an intangible pact, the socioecology of artificial reefs is comfortably real.
p.s. I wanted to go to Gibraltar before I left for Lanzarote but guess who’s out of money? It’s me.