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Spain–United Kingdom relations

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Spain–United Kingdom relations

Spanish–British relations
Map indicating locations of Spain and United Kingdom


United Kingdom

Spain–United Kingdom relations, also called Anglo-Spanish relations, are the bilateral international relations between Spain and the United Kingdom.


The history of Spanish–British relations is complicated by the political heritage of the two countries. Neither the United Kingdom nor Spain has a unique constitutional ancestor; the United Kingdom was originally created by a union of the kingdoms of England and Scotland (and later joined by Ireland), whilst the Kingdom of Spain was initially created by a union of the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon. They have also been complicated by the fact that the United Kingdom and Spain were both imperial powers, after the same land, an occurrence which is being played out to this day with the disputed ownership and status of Gibraltar.

Anglo-Portuguese Alliance

João I of Portugal entertaining John of Gaunt in the early years of the Anglo-Portuguese Alliance.

For centuries, the role of England, and subsequently the United Kingdom, in Iberia was coloured by the Anglo-Portuguese Alliance. Relations with Portugal always have been closer than those with Spain, and Spain and the United Kingdom have gone to war twice over Portugal's independence.

In 1384, at the height of the Hundred Years' War, England provided reinforcements to King João I to thwart a French-backed Castilian invasion. These forces saw action at the decisive battle of Aljubarrota, and proved to be vital in securing the continued independence of Portugal from its larger neighbours.

The alliance submerged into crisis when Portugal supported Joan of Castile instead of her aunt Isabella I of Castile during the War of the Castilian Succession of 1474-1479, because France also supported Joan's candidature. In the following years, the English collaborated with the Catholic Monarchs, there were weddings between English and Spanish heir princes and a small group of English soldiers even fought on the Castilian side during the conquest of Granada. However, the struggle of Elizabeth I of England against Philip II of Spain in the sixteenth century led to the new English support of Portuguese independent movement, that finished in 1640 with the crowning of King João IV of Portugal (not recognized by Spain until 1668). In following centuries, Portugal and the United Kingdom were closely allied in their politics and wars against Spain, which closely collaborated with France after the Spanish War of Succession (1700–1714) that established the House of Bourbon on the Spanish throne.

Arms of de Mary I and Philip of Spain as English monarchs.

Age of Exploration

Henry VIII of England, who had made a political match with Catherine of Aragon (a marriage that was later annulled by Henry), made a series of short-lived alliances with Carlos I against France during the Italian War of 1521 and the Italian War of 1542. Philip II of Spain married Mary I of England, making Phillip king of Spain and of England and Ireland. Mary's early death without issue prevented a closer personal union of the countries.

The late sixteenth century saw England and Spain at war again. The Anglo-Spanish War (1585-1604) arose largely from religious differences, the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, and the raging Eighty Years' War, but it came at a time of Spanish occupation and near-annexation of Portugal, which was undergoing a succession crisis of its own. Although most battles were fought in the Caribbean in which Spain won the vast majority of victories, it is best remembered for the fate of the Spanish Armada, the defeat of which is seen by many Britons as the watershed of Spanish power in Europe even though it was watered down by the fact that Spain defeated the English Armada the very next year, and the war petered out into a stalemate with Spain maintaining its hegemony.

War of the Spanish Succession

The War of the Spanish Succession saw the invasion of Spain by the Holy Roman Empire (mainly Austria and Prussia, as well as other minor German states), Great Britain, the Dutch Republic, the Duchy of Savoy and the Kingdom of Portugal in an attempt to force the Habsburg candidate onto the Spanish throne against the wishes of the Spanish people, loyal to the Bourbon prince the Duc of Anjou, who was eventually enthroned. In this war, Spain lost Minorca and Gibraltar to the British but the Bourbon dynasty remains on the Spanish throne to this day.

Eighteenth century

This set the scene for Spanish alliances with France against the United Kingdom in the later wars of the 18th century. The strength of the British navy tended to weaken Spain's control over its international empire.

North America increasingly became a battleground between the two states. The British had been relatively late to settle on the continent, but had built up a number of successful colonies with rapidly expanding populations. They began to challenge the Spanish monopoly on trade in South America, which the Spanish tried to prevent by passing laws against non-Spanish traders. One such illegal trader, Captain Robert Jenkins, had his ear cut off as a punishment in 1739, which later caused outrage in Britain and led to the War of Jenkins Ear, an element of the wider War of the Austrian Succession.

The British started the war by capturing and sacking Porto Bello, a major Spanish trading and naval base. The British triumph was hailed throughout its empire, and a number of streets are still named Portobello. However, a subsequent large-scale attack on Cartagena de Indias ended in disastrous defeat for the British.

Seven Years' War

The Seven Years' War lasted between 1756–1763, arraying Prussia, Britain and Hanover (with the British king as its prince-elector) against Austria, France, Russia, Sweden, and most smaller German states. Spain was drawn into the conflict later in 1761, on the side of France.

In that period, Spain lost control of Florida to Great Britain but recuperated that territory years later during the Treaty of Paris 1789, receiving New Orleans and the Louisiana Territory west of the Mississippi River from the French instead.

American War of Independence

Spanish forces overran the British lines during the climactic Battle of Pensacola.

Hoping to gain revenge on the British for their defeat during the Seven Years' War, France offered support to rebel American colonists seeking independence from Britain during the American War of Independence and in 1778 entered the war on their side. They then urged Spain to do the same, hoping the combined force would be strong enough to overcome the British Royal Navy and be able to invade England. In 1779 Spain joined the war, hoping to take advantage of a substantially weakened Britain.

A well-organised force under Bernado Galvez operating out of Spanish Louisiana launched a number of attacks in British colonies in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, which they took with relative ease against weak British garrisons, and were planning an expedition against Jamaica when peace was declared in 1783.

In Europe, Britain's traditional allies Austria and Portugal remained neutral, leaving them isolated. Because of this there was virtually no military activity in continental Europe aside from the Great Siege of Gibraltar. Despite a prolonged besiegement, the British garrison there was able to hold out until relieved and The Rock remained in British hands following the Treaty of Paris.

Unlike their French allies (for whom the war proved largely to be a disaster, financially and militarily) the Spanish made a number of territorial gains, recovering Florida and Minorca. Despite this there were ominous signs for the Spanish, as the combined French and Spanish fleets had been unable to gain mastery of the seas and had also failed in two of their key objectives, regaining Gibraltar and an invasion of Great Britain.

French Revolution

The aftermath of the 1789 French Revolution unusually saw Britain and Spain as allies for the first time in well over a century. After King Louis XVI of France was executed in 1793 Britain joined Spain in a growing coalition of European states trying to invade France and defeat the revolution. The coalition suffered a number of defeats at the hands of the French and soon broke up. Spain, influenced by the pro-French Manuel de Godoy, made peace in 1795 while Britain continued to fight on.

In 1796 Spain signed the Treaty of San Ildefonso and aligned with the French against the British.

Napoleonic Wars

At the start of the Napoleonic Wars, Spain again found itself allied with France, and again found itself outgunned at sea, notably at the Battle of Trafalgar. British attempts to capture parts of the Spanish colonial empire were unsuccessful and included failures at Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Puerto Rico, and the Canary Islands. When Napoleon invaded Iberia to force Portugal to accept the Continental System, and to place his brother on the Spanish throne, the British and (most) Spanish ended up on the same side, united against French invasion. A united British-Spanish-Portuguese army, under the command of the Duke of Wellington, eventually forced the French out of Spain, in the Peninsular War, which the Spanish call their War of Independence.

Atlantic slave trade

In the 19th century, the British Empire was at the height of its power, and the United Kingdom sought to end the Atlantic slave trade, the process by which slave stocks in the Americas and specially in the United States were replenished and enlarged, which the United Kingdom had outlawed in 1807.

At the 1817 London Conference, the British pressured the major European colonial powers, including Spain, to agree to abolish the slave trade. Under the agreement, Spain agreed to end the slave trade north of the Equator immediately, and south of the Equator by 1820. British naval vessels were given the right to search suspected slavers. Despite overwhelming British naval supremacy, the trade continued. In 1835, the Anglo-Spanish agreement on the slave trade was renewed, and the rights of British captains to board and search Spanish ships were expanded. Mixed British-Spanish commissions were established at Freetown and Havana. Vessels carrying specified 'equipment articles' (including extra mess gear, lumber, foodstuffs) were declared prima facie to be slavers. However, after the First Carlist War, the leverage afforded by British political support for the Spanish government declined, and the British abolitionist movement focused on the United States and Brazil. Slavery was abolished in Spain's main Caribbean colony, Cuba, in 1888, over fifty years after the practice was outlawed across the British Empire.

Carlist Wars

Don Carlos, the first Carlist Pretender.

During the Carlist Wars, Spain was wracked by civil war, as a result of a power struggle between the royal heir, Isabella and Carlists, led by the Pretender, Don Carlos, her uncle. Fearing a resurgent theocratic Spain, the possible re-emergence of long-silent pretenders to the British throne, a new Spanish monarch that might refuse to accept the independence of Spain's lost Latin American colonies, and domestic secessionism (particularly amongst Irish Catholics), the United Kingdom steadfastly supported Isabella who was a liberal instead of the Carlist pretenders who were conservatives.

In 1835, the United Kingdom instigated the foundation of the Navarre and contributed greatly to the suppression of the revolt.

Twentieth century

Spain remained neutral in the First World War. During the Spanish Civil War, the government of the United Kingdom decided to stay neutral, supporting neither the Republican government nor Franco´s Nationalists, although a few thousand British volunteers fought on the Republican side. Franco had substantial support from the fascist regimes of Germany and Italy and, after his victory, he was under strong pressure to join them during the Second World War. However, he chose to remain out of the war, although Spain's official status was that of "non-belligerent" instead of "neutral", expressing its alignment with the Axis Powers. Following the end of the war, frosty relations continued between the two states until the end of the Franco era and the democratisation of Spain, with this relations warmed rapidly, as Trade and Tourism were highly prominent between the two countries.

Royal marriages

Armed conflict

Wars between the British and the Spanish include:

Present day

In the present day, Spain and the United Kingdom maintain very good relations, both being members of the European Union, NATO and the OECD. They have many common laws due to EU membership. However, there are a few problems that strain relations slightly.


The border between Gibraltar and Spain, as seen from the Spanish side

The status of Gibraltar is a major point of contention in relations between the two nations, dating back to the conflicts in the early 18th century. The official status of Gibraltar is that of a British overseas territory. Captured by Dutch and British troops in 1704, the Spanish king transferred the territory to Great Britain in 1713 under the terms of Article X of the Treaty of Utrecht.

In two referendums, held in September 1967 and November 2002, the people of Gibraltar rejected any proposal for the transfer of sovereignty to Spain. The 2002 referendum was on a proposal for joint sovereignty which at one stage was supported by the UK Government.
Considering the Gibraltarians decolonisation subjects, Spain asserts it is a bilateral issue between sovereign nations on the grounds of the "territorial integrity" clause UN Resolutions, which according to Spain prevails over the right to self-determination to the colonists themselves.[1] On the other hand, Gibraltar's authorities consider Gibraltarian people the legitimate inhabitants of the territory, and therefore entitled to the self-determination right in compliance of the same United Nations' resolutions. Gibraltar's 2006 Constitution Order endorsed and approved by Her Majesty's Government states:

Her Majesty’s Government will never enter into arrangements under which the people of Gibraltar would pass under the sovereignty of another state against their freely and democratically expressed wishes.[2]

In 2008, the UN 4th Committee rejected the claim that a dispute over sovereignty affected self-determination, which was a basic human right.[3]

From May 2000 to May 2001 HMS Tireless moored in Gibraltar, for repairs on the cooling system of its nuclear reactor. The presence of the nuclear vessel in Gibraltar caused outrage among environmentalists and strained relations between Spain and the UK.[4][5][6]

In February 2002, the UK formally apologised when a unit of British Royal Marines accidentally invaded La Linea de la Concepción's beach instead of Gibraltar's where the planned military training was to be conducted.[7][8]

In 2004, Spain and the United Kingdom established the Tripartite Forum for Dialogue on Gibraltar, with equal representation of both countries and the British Overseas Territory.

Waters around Gibraltar, declared by the United Kingdom as territorial waters according to the UN Convention of the Sea (to a three-mile limit),[9] and claimed by Spain,[10][11] are other source of clash, with the Government of Gibraltar actively backing the British position naming the disputed waters as "British Gibraltar territorial waters".[12] In December 2008, the European Commission approved a Spanish request designating most of the waters around Gibraltar as one of Spain's protected nature sites under EU law. This decision is being currently challenged in the European Court of Justice by the Government of Gibraltar, backed by the British government. The Commission will defend its position and, in doing so, will be backed by Spain[13] In May 2009 Gibraltar authorities complained about the presence of a Guardia Civil Maritime Service vessel into the three-mile waters around Gibraltar, escalating to the intervention of Royal Navy Gibraltar Squadron and a diplomatic protest by the Government of the United Kingdom.[14][15][16] Further incidents occurred in November 2009.[17][18]

In July 2009 Miguel Ángel Moratinos, the Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs visited Gibraltar to meet the British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, and Gibraltar's chief minister, Peter Caruana, becoming the first Spanish official to visit the territory since Spain closed its consulate in Gibraltar in the 1950s. The sovereignty issue was not dealt with, given its controversial nature, and the three-way talks focused on other subjects such as cooperation on the environment, maritime matters, and ways of further facilitating the Moroccan community in Gibraltar to transit Spain en route to and from Gibraltar and Morocco.[19][20]

In December 2009, a Guardia Civil launch entered the Gibraltar harbour. Three armed officers landed in Gibraltar illegally and, along with a fourth, were arrested by the Royal Gibraltar Police.[21] Many such incidents occur, with a more recent event being the arresting of Gibraltarian fisherman inside the waters of Gibraltar, confiscation of equipment and transfer of the individuals to Spain. This was strongly condemned by the UK Government,[22] and the UK's method of quiet diplomacy with Spain was criticised by a local newspaper, which called for more 'open' diplomacy.[23]

Between January and November 2012, around 200 incursions by Spanish vessels into Gibraltar waters were recorded, as opposed to 23 in 2011 and 67 in 2010. In December 2012, one day after an incursion by a Spanish warship, a Royal Navy Type 23 frigate, HMS Sutherland arrived on a scheduled visit. Rather than taking on stores and fuel and proceeding as had been planned, the frigate and its Merlin helicopter conducted a patrol of Gibraltar waters as a message.[24]

In February 2013, a Spanish Navy patrol ship, the Tornado, a 94-meter long armed patrol vessel, larger than both of the Royal Navy light craft stationed in Gibraltar at the time, entered Gibraltar's waters and cruised in them irregularly for about 20 minutes, during which the Royal Navy sent it repeated radio warnings demanding it leave, before leaving. The British Foreign Office protested to the Spanish government over the incident, described as the most serious Spanish incursion since the 1960s. The incident followed previous incursions involving Spanish police motorboats entering Gibraltar's waters, interfering with pleasure craft and protecting fishermen using illegal practices.[25]

The intensity of the disagreement about Gibraltar has been perceived in different ways by the two countries. According to former Spanish prime minister Felipe González, "For the British, Gibraltar is a visit to the dentist once a year when we meet to talk about it. For us, it is a stone in the shoe all day long".[26]

Fishing dispute

The United Kingdom and Spain have had several recent disputes over fishing rights, particularly with regards to the European Union's Common Fisheries Policy. When Spain became a member state in 1986, she had the world's sixth largest fishing fleet,[27] and much of the economies of Galicia, Asturias, and Cantabria depended upon catches by Spanish boats outside Spain's national Exclusive Economic Zone, just as they do today.

To prevent the fleets of other EU members (particularly Spain) taking up the UK's Common Fisheries Policy quota, the UK sought to create a framework that discriminated between British- and Spanish-owned boats, regardless of flag flown, so that its waters wouldn't be over-fished by foreign-owned trawlers. Due to fishing's importance to some of the regional economies of Spain, the Spanish government protested vehemently, but had no power to prevent the UK determining its own domestic policies. However, when the Single European Act was implemented, in 1987, this became illegal under EU law, and a Spanish company successfully challenged the right of the British government to prevent Spanish fishermen taking up the British quota in what has now become known as the Factortame case. In total, £55m has been paid out by the British government to Spanish parties (both public and private) for loss of earnings.[28]

To this day, the large Spanish fishing fleet does the majority of its fishing outside Spain's EEZ, as far away as Canada and Namibia.[29] Nonetheless, a large part of its business comes from fishing in the waters of northern Europe, particularly those of the United Kingdom and Ireland. At times of debate of the United Kingdom's declining fish stocks, this has caused strained relations between Spain and the UK, and particularly between Spain and the membership of the devolved Scottish institutions, since Scotland is more dependent upon fishing than the rest of the UK.


Scotland held a referendum on independence from the UK on 18 September 2014. In November 2013 the Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy had stated that an independent Scotland would have to reapply for membership of the European Union, causing considerable irritation to the Scottish Government.[30] Relations between the Spanish and Scottish governments deteriorated further when the Scottish Government alleged that a senior UK Treasury official visited Spain ostensibly to co-ordinate British and Spanish opposition to the independence movements in Scotland and Catalonia.[31] Rajoy was one of the few European heads of government to explicitly voice opposition to Scottish independence, primarily due to his fears that it would encourage the separatist drive in Catalonia.[32] On the issue of Catalan independence, Prime Minister David Cameron had said that "I don't believe that, in the end, [it's right to] try to ignore these questions of nationality, independence, identity"... I think it’s right to make your arguments, take them on and then you let the people decide" though he also added that "I would never presume to tell people in Spain how to meet these challenges themselves; it's a matter for the Spanish Government and the Spanish Prime Minister."[33]


The 2001 UK Census recorded 54,482 Spanish-born people living in the UK.[34] In comparison, it is estimated that 990,000 British-born people live in Spain.[35][36] Of these, according to the BBC and contrary to popular belief, only about 21.5% are over the age of 65.[37]

In 2011, Spanish migration to the UK went up 85%.[38] As for 2012, it was recorded that 69,097 Spanish-born people live in the United Kingdom.[39] On the other hand, in the same period 397,535 British-born people were living in Spain [40]


The list below is of British and Spanish town twinnings.


  1. ^ Surya Prakash Sharma (1997). Territorial acquisition, disputes, and international law. The Hague. p. 311.  : "[Spain] has insisted that allowing the Gibraltarians to retain ties with Britain would constitute a partial disruption of Spain's territorial integrity in violation of paragraph 6 of 1514(XV)"
  2. ^
  3. ^ No alternative to the principle of self-determination
  4. ^ "Nuclear sub leaves Gibraltar". BBC News. 7 May 2001. Retrieved 23 May 2010. 
  5. ^ Evans-Pritchard, Ambrose (27 October 2000). "Spain protests overleaking nuclear sub". The Daily Telegraph (London). Retrieved 23 May 2010. 
  6. ^
  7. ^ Sengupta, Kim (19 February 2002). "A beach too far: British marines invade Spain by mistake". The Independent (London). Retrieved 23 May 2010. 
  8. ^ Tremlett, Giles (19 February 2002). "Tell it to the marines... we've invaded the wrong country". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 23 May 2010. 
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^ Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Spain (2008). Informe sobre Gibraltar (in  
  12. ^ Action brought on 6 May 2009 — Government of Gibraltar v Commission (Case T-176/09)
  13. ^ Spain/UK to cross swords in Gibraltar waters legal challenge before EC
  14. ^ Britain tells Spain violation unacceptable
  15. ^ Return of the Armada
  16. ^ "Who Owns Gibraltar? Spain Takes a Step Onto the Rock". Time. 21 July 2009. Retrieved 23 May 2010. 
  17. ^ Tension heightens in Gibraltar waters
  18. ^ Govan, Fiona (20 November 2009). "Royal Navy used 'Spanish flag' for target practice off Gibraltar". The Daily Telegraph (London). Retrieved 23 May 2010. 
  19. ^ Trilateral Communique
  20. ^ Keeley, Graham (21 July 2009). "Miguel ngel Moratinos Spanish Foreign Minister met by protests on visit to Gibraltar". The Times (London). Retrieved 23 May 2010. 
  21. ^ Incident at Harbour Views
  22. ^
  23. ^
  24. ^
  25. ^ Howarth, Mark (6 February 2013). "Tensions growing off Gibraltar after Royal Navy confronts Spanish warship that had strayed into British waters". Daily Mail (London). 
  26. ^  
  27. ^ "UK and Spain Fishing Dispute". American University, 11 January 1997. Accessed 22 June 2006.
  28. ^ House of Commons Written Answers for 8 February 2001. Parliament of the United Kingdom, 8 February 2001. Accessed 22 June 2006.
  29. ^ "Iyambo in fish talks with Spanish fisheries minister". Namibia Economist, 17 March 2006. Accessed 22 June 2006.
  30. ^ BBC
  31. ^
  32. ^ "Scottish or Catalan vote 'torpedoes EU', says Spain's Rajoy". BBC. 27 June 2014. Retrieved 17 September 2014. 
  33. ^
  34. ^ "Country-of-birth database".  
  35. ^ BBC news: Brits abroad - Spain
  36. ^ Where have the figures (in the previous reference) come from?
  37. ^ BBC News. 6 December 2006 . 
  38. ^ "Spanish Immigration to the UK up 85%: What This Means for Payments Abroad - LONDON, September 14, 2011 /PRNewswire/". United Kingdom: Retrieved 2012-05-21. 
  39. ^
  40. ^

See also

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