Codominium and shared sovereignty – what future for Gibraltar after BREXIT?

In the aftermath of the recent referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, Francesco Violi, looks at the status of and options for Gibraltar, a British overseas territory located in the Iberian Peninsular, which voted unanimously to remain in the EU. 

The Latin word condominium comes from the union of the Latin prefix con (from cum, with) and the word dominium (rule). As the word may suggest, it is a form of shared sovereignty involving two or more external parts exercising a joint form of sovereignty on the same area, sometimes while conceding or maintaining forms of self-government on the subject area. Watts (2008: 11) mentioned them among one of the forms of federal political systems.

Condominia date back to the Middle Ages, as an ancient form to settle rivalries and conflicts between states clashing for supremacy over the same territories. According to historical reports, the condominium was a Byzantine invention. Emperor Justinian II proposed a new form of shared sovereignty to Caliph Muawiyah I over Cyprus and its tax revenues (Zavagno, 2011). This arrangement lasted for almost three centuries, before the Byzantines won the island back.

Andorra represents one of the clearest and most ancient examples of Condominia, in the form of a co-principality in which the Bishop of Urgell and the Head of State of France are together head of the state of Andorra (with the title of Co-Princes). At the same time, Andorra has retained its autonomy and local institutions since the Middle Ages and its own local political dynamic, similar to Western liberal democracies. Another famous case of Condominium was the Republic of Krakow, which involved a form of co-sovereignty among Prussia, Austria and Russia. This specific case of condominium is known as a Tridominium, i.e. involving three parts.

Condominia were then applied in the colonial era by European powers in oversea territories. In British colonial history the case of Anglo-Egyptian Sudan is one of the clearest examples of condominium between a colonial power and a regional power, with the latter being under the influence of the former. This agreement provided mutual assistance over a disputed territory, and shared responsibilities on security over an extended territory. Although called a condominium, which implies a form of equality of parts, in this form of [imposed] agreement, the British played a hegemonic role by frustrating the Egyptians’ demands in the area, as well as indigenous Sudanese demands for independence and self-rule. Condominia and shared-sovereignty formula represented a diplomatic formula for rival European powers to avoid conflicts among themselves. The Vanuatu Islands and the Togoland (1916-1922) were both colonial condominia under shared sovereignty between France and Great Britain. The Samoa Islands had been a Tridominium among the USA, Great Britain and Germany from 1889 to 1899 (Gilson, 1970).

Because of their nature, Condominia are a fragile form of federal political system. Their success as a peaceful solution relies on the agreement and good will of the parts to respect such an arrangement. With the sole exception of Andorra, Condominia have not been permanent arrangements. Although they are created on the basis of immediate peacemaking circumstances, most of the times they have been followed by new settlements favouring one of the external parts or determining the full independence of the Condominium. The former case occurred with the partition of Togoland between France and Great Britain in 1922, the partition of Samoa between Germany and the USA in 1899 and the transfer of Krakow under full Austrian sovereignty in 1846. The latter is represented by the cases of Sudan, Vanuatu, and Nauru. For these states, the condominium represented a fundamental phase for developing independent statehood.

According to Joyner (1992: 90), Antarctica represents a Res Communis Omnium i.e. a common good of the international community. Because of this legal definition, and the governance of Antarctica according to its treaty (Antarctic Treaty, 1959), Antarctica itself might be compared to a multilateral, international Condominium.


A Condominium solution for Gibraltar?

Gibraltar has been a long-lasting issue in the relations between the United Kingdom and Spain since the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), which forced Spain to accept British sovereignty over Gibraltar and Menorca as a result of the War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714). While Spain managed to reconquer Menorca in follow-up wars in the 18th century, it always failed in reconquer the Rock, as Gibraltar is also known.[1] Despite these failures, and the evolution of good relations between post-Franco Spain and the United Kingdom, in addition to the involvement of both countries in European integration, Spain has never abandoned its claim over this small peninsula in Southern Andalusia.

After Franco’s blockade on Gibraltar, the governments of Spain and the United Kingdom signed a first agreement in Brussels (1984), in preparation of Spanish accession to the European Community. The treaty established free movement between Spain and Gibraltar, mutual rights and equality for Gibraltarians in Spain and Spaniards in Gibraltar and, above all, a negotiating process over many issues, including sovereignty and Gibraltar’s political status.

Forms of joint sovereignty and Condominium were proposed by UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and Spanish Minister for Foreign Affairs Ana Palacio at the beginning of the 2000s. Although the negotiations were supported by the Foreign Office, the Gibraltar Parliament unilaterally called a referendum to stop any option involving joint sovereignty.[2] Voters unanimously rejected the negotiations (98.48% voted against, with a turnout of 87.9%) and any plan for joint sovereignty. Gibraltarian hostility towards this project was linked to Spanish proposals that the condominium would not be permanent, but a preliminary phase before being placed under full Spanish sovereignty.

Following the referendum, the Spanish and the British governments started, along with the Gibraltarian government, a tripartite forum of dialogue. Established in 2006 after the Cordoba Agreement, the forum sought to manage many concrete issues, but did not provide a framework for resolving the issue of Gibraltar’s sovereignty (Gold, 2009). That forum, supported by the Spanish Zapatero government, faced harsh opposition from the subsequent Rajoy led administration, which essentially boycotted it. The Spanish Boycott from 2011 led to a de facto dismissal of the forum. The reason for this disagreement can be found in the Spanish attitude towards Gibraltar’s status; while Spain would support a Condominium solution and shared sovereignty with the United Kingdom, it concomitantly refuses to accept Gibraltar as an autonomous or semi-sovereign counterpart in the negotiation.

The Referendum on the UK membership of the European Union in 2016 risks opening a new rift not only between Spain and United Kingdom, but also between the latter and its Andalusian territory. On the 23rd of June, Gibraltar’s constituency almost unanimously rejected leaving the EU (96% with a turnout of 83.7%). Although its status could to some extent be compared to Scotland and Northern Ireland, which both voted for remain with a relatively consistent margin, both the overwhelming percentage in favour of remaining and the high turnout in the referendum represent a strong case for Gibraltar to not be dragged out of the European Union. Additionally, Gibraltar’s economy relies on cooperation and integration with Spain, and on being an attractive and open place for Spanish workforce and business. By being a British oversea territory and Special Member State Territory with the European Union, Gibraltar is outside the Common External Tariff and the obligation to levy the Value Added Tax but, more importantly it has its own autonomy in complying with EU directives. Despite this status, the United Kingdom is legally responsible for Gibraltar’s external relations and consequently for Gibraltar’s EU membership. Therefore, the Rock would follow the same destiny as UK out of the EU. Under these circumstances, a form of joint sovereignty with Spain could be a solution for this puzzle.

Although Gibraltar is strongly opposed to any possible transfer under joint Spanish sovereignty, such an agreement could embed Gibraltar in the European Union. Gibraltar would become a co-principality (by having two heads of states like Andorra), and would retain its self-government, while being linked to both the European Union and the United Kingdom after the withdrawal is completed. The Spanish government stated right after the referendum that Gibraltar was a step closer to Spain. Nonetheless, Gibraltarians have remained very skeptical about this solution; Gibraltarian Chief Minister Mr. Fabian Picardo dismissed any Spanish demand for joint sovereignty and stated that Gibraltar would find other ways to preserve its status in the European Union, perhaps by demanding a constitutional reform and more devolution for Gibraltar in its relationship with the European Union. The fear of Spanish centralism and the will to maintain the political and fiscal autonomy granted by being a British overseas territory remains a major issue between Spain and Gibraltar.

A solution to the status of Gibraltar relies partly on the will of Spain and United Kingdom to negotiate this Condominium and partly on the citizens of Gibraltar. The latter could be in the position, in case of Brexit and negative outcome of the negotiations between the EU and the United Kingdom, to prioritise the necessity to maintain EU membership over the skepticism towards Spanish involvement.


Gilson, R. P. (1970). Samoa, 1830-1900. The Politics of a Multi-Cultural Community. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gold, P. (2009). The Tripartite Forum of Dialogue: Is this the Solution to the ‘Problem’ of Gibraltar? Mediterranean Politics, 14(1), pp 79-97. Doi: 10.1080/13629390902747475

Joyner, C. (1992). Antarctica and the Law of the Sea. Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers.

Watts, R. (2008). Comparing Federal Systems. Kingston: Queen’s University Press.

Zavagno, L. (2011). At the Edge of Two Empires: The Economy of Cyprus between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (650s-800s CE). Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 67, pp. 121-56.


[1] The ‘Rock’ is a common term used to describe Gibraltar – dominated by the 426m high mountain.

[2] The question of changed status had also been rejected by an earlier referendum in 1967 – another case of the neverendums?

Francesco Violi is  PhD student at Canterbury Christ Church University.

This entry was posted in brexit, federalism, Gibraltar, Spain, United Kingdom. Bookmark the permalink.

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