28 May 2012

This business with Gibraltar

When I was in the UK recently it was reported on the BBC news that the Queen of Spain wouldn't be going to QEII's big jubilee lunch because of "disputes over Gibraltar".  Most people assumed therefore that Sofia wanted to deliver a snub to her distant relative (they are both descended from Queen Victoria) because of  Spain's claim to sovereignty over the Rock. The ludicrous claims to Gibraltar must not endanger Spain's ties to Britain, spluttered The Telegraph.

In slightly calmer terms, Guardian readers were told were told that the Spanish government had ordered the boycott at the last minute because it would be "inappropriate under the present circumstances", implying that this referred to the forthcoming visit of Prince Edward for the Rock's own jubilee celebrations.

This all struck me as a bit odd, because (a) the squabble over sovereignty is hardly new, (b) Prince Edward's visit was announced over a month ago, and (c) Sofia is known for her ability to keep her dignified head high above the mire.  So why this last-minute U-turn?  A Spanish news item from 17 May gives us a clue:
Queen cancels trip to London in protest about Gibraltar fishing rights   Queen Sofía has cancelled a planned trip to London, originally scheduled for tomorrow, Friday, as part of Queen Elizabeth's Jubilee celebrations, at a luncheon at Windsor hosted by the Queen and Prince Philip. The Spanish Government deemed the visit 'inappropriate' given the present conflict between Spain and Britain over the rights of Spanish fishermen in the waters around Gibraltar.  This is added to the three-day visit by Prince Edward planned for June 11. Diplomatic sources have said that the conflict was reopened after discussions between the Gibraltar Government and fishing representatives broke down last week. 
So the current spat, it appears, is less about sovereignty of the Rock itself than about its territorial waters.  When Gibraltar was given to Britain in perpetuity 200 years ago under the Treaty of Utrecht, there was no such concept, but Gibraltar is claiming a territorial limit of 1.5 miles to the west and 3 miles to the east.  Spain however only acknowledges the harbour area (shown in orange on this map).


In 1999 an agreement was reached allowing 70 fishing boats from the Spanish towns of La Linea and Algeciras to fish in these disputed waters, but a couple of months ago the Gibraltar police and the Royal Navy started harassing these boats at sea, buzzing them at high speed, driving them back to port and depriving the men of their livelihood.  Despite protection from Spanish Guardia Civil patrol boats and helicopters, similar incidents have taken place regularly since then.  Last night, one small fishing craft from La Linea was surrounded by four Gibraltar Police and six Guardia Civil boats, with a Royal Navy ship standing by.  Is this really the best use of their resources?
La Divina Providencia, just trying to catch a few fish
The Spanish have got their own back by routinely searching every vehicle entering and leaving Gibraltar, causing three-hour queues at the border (and depriving many British expats of their regular trips to Morrisons supermarket).

Gibraltar's excuse for breaking the agreement is that the ships are doing environmental damage by fishing with nets rather than hooks.  For Gib to wave the Green flag is a bit like Jeremy Clarkson telling people to save fuel by driving more slowly.  The practice of bunkering, where tankers and other large vessels line up out in the bay to be piped with Gibraltar's tax-free fuel and avoid docking fees, results in a huge amount of spillage and has been described as a toxic timebomb waiting to explode.  However this is hugely profitable for Gibraltar, and you wouldn't want all those fishing boats getting in the way, would you?

Ships around El Peñon waiting for their tax-free fuel
I really don't care whose Rock it is, I detest national boundaries and nationalism of all kinds.  But surely in this day and age Spain and the UK can sit down and thrash out a civilised solution to the dispute?  We are both in the European Union and NATO, so there shouldn't be a conflict of interest between the two countries either in economic or in military terms.  The Gibraltarians themselves could wave whatever flag they felt like, and the online gambling companies and  financial institutions who currently benefit from whatever concessions they are offered there could start paying tax and observing laws like the rest of Europe.

If Gibraltar increased the duty on tobacco, fuel and other goods so their prices were in line with Spain's, smuggling would stop and the strict border security would no longer be necessary.  They could use the revenue to improve their appalling roads and provide further education facilities for school-leavers - there are none at present.

The latest round of talks is scheduled to take place in London tomorrow.  For the sake of those fishermen and their families, who are now dependent on food parcels from Caritas, not to mention we poor teabag-deprived expats, I hope they sort something out soon.

08 May 2012

Fighting bulls at play

So much better without all the blood.

01 May 2012

The San Jorge bull-runs - a personal view

Search for "San Jorge Gazules 2012" on YouTube and you will see a dozen videos of this year's sueltas de vaquillas (or bull-runs as we foreigners call them, though they are actually heifers), in honour of Alcalá's patron saint.  Up until 1899 they did indeed use bulls, and they used to run all the way to the slaughterhouse in the Calle Salada where they were butchered and the meat shared amongst the population.  But the bulls killed two people that year, and the bull-run was dropped until 1961.  They used bullocks at first, then switched to the less dangerous heifers.

Twice a day over the three days of the festival, at 1.00 and 2.30 pm, a canon is fired on the Plaza Alta and a young cow is released from a lorry onto the square.  Eventually she will run down San Juan de Ribera, Ildefonso Romero and Calle Real to the Alameda, cheered on by thousands of people watching the spectacle from their rooftops and balconies, or squashed up against the heavy iron bars which block the side-streets.


The vaquillas are supplied by a local ganadero, or breeder.  They are bred for their agility, bravery and ferocity, the daughters and potential mothers of the fighting bulls or toros bravos who grace the bullrings of Spain, though half their size. These sueltas are a chance to put them through their paces. If they put up a good fight on the streets, they are more likely (supposedly) to produce fiercer bulls.

At the point of release the young animal will already have been driven to a frenzy by the journey, with people banging on the sides of the lorry as she is driven through Alcalá's steep narrow streets to the Plaza Alta.  Angry and confused by the sound of the cannon and the roaring crowds, and blinded by the sudden bright sunlight, she often slips on the sand and falls to her knees.  She is constantly goaded by a group of young men, often referred to as mozos, fired up with drink and eager to show off their machismo.  They wave their arms in front of her, yank her tail or smack her on the flank.   They aren't supposed to use bullfighters' capes, but some do so anyway.

Occasionally she will get her own back by delivering a corneado with her sharp horns, or trampling on one of the runners as they scurry to climb to safety on a nearby balcony or take refuge behind the metal bars.   Sometimes the injuries are serious, and in places where full-grown bulls are used rather than vaquillas, there are occasional fatalities.  Last week a 70-year-old man was killed by a bull in Jaen; his family insisted the fiesta should continue, as he wouldn't have wanted to spoil the fun.  The media report such cases as if they were reporting traffic accidents, as if they were inevitable rather than avoidable.

Sometimes an animal will give up the fight and stand still, bewildered and terrified, or try to get away from her tormentors. Last year one of them sought refuge in the bar Los Manueles on the Alameda, which was captured by the local TV crew.  But they are soon taunted by the mozos into responding once more.  The people want their entertainment.  They will discuss the merits of each beast in detail; the more she fights back, the more she is worth to the breeder.

There are signs of change though.  The Málaga town of Alhaurín al Grande has suspended its sueltas after a cow was injured so badly by six men in 2010 that she had to be put down.  The maltreatment was filmed by the Colectivo Andaluz Contra el Maltrato Animal y Medioambiental (CACMA) and the men were later charged by the Guardia Civil.   You can watch the video here, if you have the stomach for it.    But Alhaurin  is on the Costa del Sol, and has large numbers of residents and visitors from Northern Europe.  The removal of the bull-run from its festival is more likely to be down to economics than animal welfare.

Like many foreigners living in Spain, I find the sueltas very hard to watch, even on film. I have never met an alcalaino who could see anything wrong with it.  As far as they are concerned it is free entertainment for all social classes, and and integral part of their beloved fiesta.  But the expats here tend to keep out of the way until later in the day when the heifers are on their way back to the farm.

More generally, I've observed that foreigners react in different ways.  Some feel it is not their place to criticise or comment on local traditions and culture, even if they don't like it. Some join animal welfare groups campaigning against tauromaquia, lending their support to a growing number of young Spaniards concerned about such issues. A few of them throw themselves wholeheartedly into the festivities, possibly in the belief that it makes them appear more "integrated".  Others, like me, just stay at home during the fiestas and write articles like this.

Anyway, here's one of those videos, so you can judge for yourself.