Olivenza is a town near the border of Portugal and Spain. Spain controls it but Portugal does not recognize it as Spanish. Unlike other disputes around the world such as Gibraltar in Spain vs UK, it does not seem to be brought up nor does it sour relations between the two countries. Why is this? Is it because it is of less significance than others due to both countries being in Schengen, EU and NATO?

  • 12
    There are a large number of disputed borders across Europe, few are politically hot topics. Aug 22, 2023 at 7:22
  • @JackAidley how many of those disputed areas have people living in them?
    – phoog
    Aug 22, 2023 at 10:34
  • 2
    @phoog, not counting irredentist claims and unrecognized states, four of Wikipedia's listed disputes involve inhabited areas: Gibraltar, Olivenza, the village of Sastavci, and an area around the mouth of the Dragonja river. The summit of Sveta Gera may also count, if you consider a military barracks "inhabited".
    – Mark
    Aug 22, 2023 at 23:12
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    Canada and the US have a fair few border disputes, but none of these are particularly politicized. During WW1, some US marines were even deployed (with Canadian agreement) to defend a Canadian lighthouse on a disputed island, which the US otherwise regards as illegal (and/or officially pretends doesn’t exist). Canada also had a dispute with Denmark until recently, a conflict “fought” by leaving each other bottles of whisky.
    – KRyan
    Aug 23, 2023 at 2:45

3 Answers 3


It is very difficult to look at a real world event, with the tons of factors influencing them, and to cathegorically decide which are the important ones, so any answer might be very opinated.

So I will just throw some ideas. Of course, some of those could apply to other situations, so take with a grain of salt.

  • The more powerful country won, and the balance of power did not shift much. So the party that was likely to challenge the status quo was in a weak position to do so. Compare with the Finnish or Polish territories lost to the Soviet Union.

  • Foreign powers were not decisively behind any of the side in opposition to the other. Yes Franco's Spain was more pro-Germany than Portugal, but it remained neutral (and it is not as if the UK had fully supported the Spanish Republic). When the USA became the dominant power, it was equally pleased by the anti-communist of Franco than with that of Salazar.

  • The issue is several centuries old. No living people, not even their grandfathers, were born in Portuguese Olivenza.

    • In addition to that, the change happened at a time in which the modern state-nation was relatively young, and many countries very decentraliced. Culture would have been less uniform then, probably with more differences between a Portuguese from Lisbon and an inhabitant to Olivenza, that between that same person from Olivenza and someone just across the Spanish border.

    • Compare that with enclaves (e.g. Gibraltar, or Ceuta o Melilla) where there is no continuity. There you have a culture that is very influenced by the mainland, in contrast with the surrounding areas.

    • Apart from the language (which are both Latin), the culture from both nations was not that different. E.g. Catholicism. And to prove that, the historical evolution of both countries was somewhat similar(*).

    • Both of the above would have made it easy for the Portuguese population to integrate in Spain. No religious discrimination. No people being forced to learn another language at school, because few of them would have been schooled anyway...

  • The territory has no great economical or strategical significance (compare that to Gibraltar).

  • In the last centuries, both Portugal and Spain have been very busy with internal strife, trying to keep a colonial empire, and avoiding getting involved in events that were too dangerous for them (like the World Wars).

  • 13
    I think the most important one is probably "The territory has no great economical or strategical significance (compare that to Gibraltar)." or written otherwise "who cares?".
    – jcaron
    Aug 22, 2023 at 10:43
  • To be precise, the issue is 222 years old. Point is, everybody who remembers the war or the border change is long dead.
    – dan04
    Aug 22, 2023 at 15:48
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    I'd ike to add another modern point that OP already came up with: Thanks to the EU / Schengen it makes comparatively little difference in the people's day to day life. They can freely travel to Portugal and Spain as they please, work in the other country and so on
    – Hobbamok
    Aug 23, 2023 at 5:26

Maybe this is because public of Portugal does not believe that Spain is going to seriously infringe on the rights of this town citizens, so this becomes an administrative objection.

A similar example is Yugoslavia with its pair of Montenegro and Kosovo. Serbia does not recognize Kosovo's independence but (surprisingly?) it did not seriously object against Montenegro's independence. The reason as I see it is that people of Montenegro are on good terms with people of Serbia, so Montenegro will not going to make lives of Serbs there miserable; whereas their history with Kosovo/Albanians is bitter and they expect that Serb communities living there would eventually be expelled or forcibly assimilated.

  • 3
    While I agree that it certainly helps (many people won't care much about a border that you can cross without even noticing it), both countries being in the EU is a relatively recent development.
    – SJuan76
    Aug 21, 2023 at 20:31
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    The comparison with Yugoslavia is not apt. The Yugoslavian constitution explicitly granted its federal republics the right to secede. Montenegro was one of these federal republics; Kosovo, being an autonomous region within Serbia, was not.
    – Psychonaut
    Aug 24, 2023 at 7:24
  • @Psychonaut That did not preclude the war in Bosnia, where a part of Bosnia decided to split from a federal republic and rejoin Serbia, with some support from Serbia - so it's not that simple.
    – alamar
    Aug 24, 2023 at 8:24

Important points that other answers missed could be:

  • Border seems to be reasonable - Looking at the map, border is defined by the river. So pretty standard separation of states. If border would be defined differently it could raise different disputes as to where exactly border should be. As @phoog pointed out river border can be also source of disputes but that depend on geological features of the area and how much humanity stabilize the river bed. River still flows through the bridge for the last 500 years there and it is more than 10km of Olivenza center.

  • Common people do not care because of Schengen Area. With the ability to cross the border without any issues nobody really cares. For example Rajka is village in Hungary with hungarian nationality as majority but with Slovak speaking majority. Many Slovak citizens are living there because of cheap housing, while working in Slovakia.

  • There is basically no claim of Portugal based on nationality of Olivenza citizens. According to wikipedia "In the beginning of 2018, the number of residents with Portuguese nationality is around 800 (6% of the town's population)".

  • 3
    "If border would be defined differently it could raise different disputes as to where exactly border should be": River borders are probably the most common source of disputes.
    – phoog
    Aug 22, 2023 at 11:28
  • I'm not disputing here, just wondering. If the third bullet is true, and I assume it is, then I must wonder why Portugal holds to a (centuries old) ideal that maybe it is time to just forgo.
    – CGCampbell
    Aug 22, 2023 at 11:45
  • @phoog Looking at the border on a couple different maps, I can see why Portugal might not want to just forgo their 'claim' as I suggest above. Turns out the border is mostly in Spain's favor as it lays, perhaps the course has changed, or the 'stronger' nation decided, but except for a few places it looks like most of the river is on Spain's side of the border. As you say, river borders are problematic, as courses change over time, and not that great a time is needed, either.
    – CGCampbell
    Aug 22, 2023 at 11:51
  • @CGCampbell "I must wonder why Portugal holds to a (centuries old) ideal that maybe it is time to just forgo": the same argument could be made about Gibraltar and indeed any other potential change in the sovereignty of a populated territory. A number of solutions are possible, including changing the nationality of the population or moving them. Each of these could be problematic depending on the desires of the affected individuals. For all we know (in the context of this question) the residents with Spanish nationality would prefer to be Portuguese.
    – phoog
    Aug 22, 2023 at 12:29

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