Spain’s well-documented squabble with Britain over Gibraltar is not the first bilateral territorial issue Madrid has initiated this summer, it emerged this week. Back at the start of July, Spain quietly lodged an official request with the United Nations to have Portugal’s southern-most territory, the Savage Islands, declared as rocks and not as islands. The demand issued by Madrid is aimed at reducing Portugal’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), currently the largest of any European nation, and will allow Spanish vessels from the Canary Islands to venture closer to Madeira.
Measuring a mere 2.73 square kilometres or 20 hectares, although its highest point is 165 metres high, the Savage Islands are at the centre of an international dispute which Madrid has decided to take to the highest international level and seek a UN resolution.
The islands are located between Madeira and the Canary Islands, allowing Portugal’s territorial waters to reach within 40 nautical miles of the Spanish territory. In terms of distance, the Savage Islands are substantially closer to the Canaries than they are to Madeira.
These islands have been a Portuguese territory since 1438, the same year that a human being first set foot on Madeira, unlike the Canary Islands which was colonised by the Spanish.
They are inhabited only by a small team of wardens from the Madeira Nature Park, though the Portuguese navy has seized a series of Spanish fishing vessels over the years for breaching territorial borders.
But Spain and its fishermen from the Canaries firmly believe this tiny set of islands cannot be classed as anything but rocks. While Madrid insists it does not have an issue over the sovereignty of the Savage Islands, having them classified as rocks would effectively eliminate sovereign rights Portugal has held for almost 700 years.
Responding this week to the emergence of Spain’s moves to alter the designation of the Savage Islands, Portugal said it is preparing a document for the UN in which it contests claims being lodged across the border.
Foreign Minister Rui Machete this week declined to publicise the content of the document, but said it does underline Portuguese hegemony over the island region.
Looking to diffuse a rise of divisive nationalism in the Iberian Peninsula, Minister Machete said: “This is not a bilateral discussion between two countries but rather an interpretation that each side is making.”
While details of Madrid’s actions only emerged close to two months after their bid to shrink Portuguese territorial waters had been presented to the UN, President Cavaco Silva paid a surprise visit to the islands only two weeks after Spain initiated this action.
The President also became the first Portuguese head-of-state to spend a night in the territory when he slept on the Vasco da Gama frigate on the night of 16 July.
Cavaco Silva’s visit was criticised at the time as it took place when Portugal’s coalition government had been rocked by a series of resignations, but observers were this week suggesting the visit was not just a mere coincidence, bearing in mind diplomatic measures undertaken by Spain’s UN representatives in New York.
The Savage Islands are not the only territory which is being contested by Portugal and Spain.
The town of Olivença, located south of Elvas in the Alentejo and Badajoz across the border, has been the centre of a dispute that has lasted two centuries.
The Portuguese Defence Force’s Geographical Institute (IGE) has repeatedly declined to draw the geographical line between Portugal and Spain where this town is situated, leaving a huge void along the border which divides the two countries.
The geographical omission by the Defence Force has been justified by the fact that Olivença is a Portuguese territory occupied by the Spanish and no lines will be drawn until Portugal wins the battle the Vienna Treaty said it had in 1817. It was then that Spain’s forces, backed by Napoleon were defeated after an occupation which had lasted 16 years.
Vienna thereby cancelled the Badajoz Treaty in 1801 which saw Portugal surrender Olivença to Spain and Napoleonic forces ending more than 500 years of Portugal rule, after it was founded in 1297.
Despite diplomatic scurries, the United Nations is only expected to issue a verdict on the Savage Islands in 2015, while the issue of Olivença is set to remain undecided.