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THE Balearic Islands, for centuries an important factor in the strategy of the Mediterranean, are again in the public eye as a result of recent brusque changes in the equilibrium of Mediterranean forces resulting from the Italian conquest of Ethiopia and the military revolt in Spain.
The islands are unimportant economically. Their area is less than 2,000 square miles and the population is only about 350,000. They have no valuable mineral resources; and their fruits and vegetables, though they would be useful in a minor way to northern powers like Great Britain or Germany, would certainly not be worth fighting for. They are interesting internationally because their naval ports dominate the sea-routes between France and French North Africa and the British imperial route to India via Gibraltar, Malta and Suez.
England was in possession of Minorca, the easternmost of the Balearics, during most of the eighteenth century; but she was there purely for reasons of strategy. Port Mahon, the chief city of Minorca, has a spacious and easily defensible harbor. Its surrender in 1803 nevertheless represented no great loss to England, since by that time British interest in the eastern Mediterranean had made Malta, captured in 1799, a better base. With the exception of this British interlude at Minorca, the Balearics have, since the Moors were driven out in the Middle Ages, followed the fortunes of Catalonia, first under the kings of Aragon, later as part of united Spain. The leaders of the separatist movement at Barcelona always include the islands in their plans for a "Greater Catalonia." And, indeed, Catalan is the language commonly spoken by the inhabitants. Despite this fact, the islands were not included when the Spanish Republic set up an autonomous Catalonia.
The position of the Balearics athwart France's communications with her North African possessions makes it important that they remain in friendly hands and accounts for the constant efforts of the French Government to cultivate the good will of Spain. For similar motives -- to protect the route to India -- the British have opposed the alienation of the Balearics from Spain. It is generally believed that at the outbreak of the World War, London had an agreement with Madrid whereby the British Navy was to be permitted to use Port Mahon as a naval base in the event Italy joined the war on the side of the Central Powers. Some years later, consternation was created in Paris by a report, never confirmed, that Primo de Rivera had granted Mussolini the right, in certain specified contingencies, to utilize the islands as a base. Obviously any such agreement lapsed when the Spanish Republic was established in 1931. The Spanish Government has been fully aware of the strategic importance of the Balearics, as evidenced by its efforts in recent years to strengthen their defenses. Not the least active in this work was Gil Robles, Minister of War in 1935, one of the leaders of the present Spanish revolt.
The rapid rise of Fascist Italy as a naval and military power is chiefly responsible for the present interest in the Balearics. Britain has already been humiliated by Mussolini's bold behavior in the Ethiopian affair, and she can no longer regard her short route to India as safe. France's free access to her granary and reservoir of man power in North Africa would be put in complete jeopardy were the Italians to obtain rights to employ one or more of the islands as air and naval bases.
Even under present conditions the western Mediterranean is largely at the mercy of the Italian warships and airplanes based on La Spezia, La Maddalena and other fortified places. If Italy obtained a foothold in the Balearics, France would be forced to depend on the roundabout Atlantic route for her wartime communications with North Africa. As a matter of fact, this danger would exist for France in case a Fascist government were established in Spain regardless of whether or not Italy secured any outright concessions in the islands, for the French could be quite certain that upon the outbreak of war between themselves and the Italians a Fascist Spain would allow Fascist Italy the use of Port Mahon, Palma and other Balearic ports. In other words, there would be a repetition of the present situation in which Italian officers -- "Italian volunteers" Foreign Minister Eden described them in the House of Commons on November 30 -- seem to have taken over control of the Balearics, unofficially but none the less effectively.
Responsible leaders of the Spanish rebel movement have repudiated the charge that they have promised to cede the Balearics to Italy, or to anyone else. In view of the intense national pride of the Spanish people -- the wall against which Napoleon beat in vain -- it would seem very doubtful whether any régime, regardless of what it might have felt compelled to promise in advance, could actually surrender any part of the national patrimony and remain long in power. It might grant certain foreign Powers military, naval or aërial privileges, and in time of war these could prove very valuable; but it hardly could go further.