British-Spanish Brawl over Gibraltar Shows No Sign of Easing

Written by | Monday, August 26th, 2013
M. Guillermo Guttierrez

Tension continues to grow between London and Madrid over the territorial sovereignty and fishing rights in Gibraltar waters wherein the Gibraltarians have started lately building an artificial reef to prevent the incursions of Spanish fishermen, accused of depleting fish stocks in the area.

Though the move is said to be ecologically-motivated seeking mainly to protect sea life and marine resources, Spain was furious and “did not buy it”, stressing that the concrete blocks dropped on the seabed by the Gibraltar government undermine its rights to fish. It retaliated with ramping up border checks with the Rock, leading to long queues and delays for motorists and day trippers who were compelled to wait sometimes up to 5 hours before they could cross the border.

The elderly, children and the infirm are the people who suffered most from the lengthy delays under scorching heat. To alleviate their plight and ordeal, the Gibraltar government deployed ambulances for travellers with medical conditions, distributed bottled water to persons waiting in the queue and mobilized water bowser carriers to ease the stress of thousands of people trapped in the queues.

Despite protests of Foreign Office against what it called “disproportionate and politically motivated measures”, urging Madrid to scale down border controls, Spain remained so far inflexible and stayed the course. The Spaniards have even threatened to impose a 50-euro fee on every vehicle entering and leaving Gibraltar. The Spanish government is also considering the possibility of taking the dispute to the International Court of Justice, the UN General Assembly or the UN Security Council.

Madrid has defended its stand and fishing rights in Gibraltar, claiming that its enhanced border checks are “legal” and essential to stop smuggling and illegal traffic. Spain also said it has the right and the obligation to police the border, vowing that the tightened grip on border will continue until the removal of the concrete blocks dumped by the Gibraltar authorities in the Rock’s nearby waters. The Spaniards insist these blocks harm the environment, their fishing industry and will make the life of fishermen much harder and difficult.

For its part, the UK protested the “disproportionate” checks made by the Spanish customs and described the situation at the Gibraltar border as “not acceptable”. The Foreign Office has said Britain will not compromise on Gibraltar sovereignty, affirming that its differences with Spain on the Rock “will be resolved by political means through the relationship as EU partners, not through disproportionate measures such as the border delays” seen during the past days.

The British government expressed serious concerns over the issue of border fees mulled by Spain and said it would challenge such a move in European courts because it goes against European Union law.

Amid rising tensions between the two countries, British warships including HMS Illustrious and two frigates were sent to Gibraltar. Though it reads as a show of force, the British defense ministry insisted that the deployment of the vessels was long-scheduled for a training mission in the Mediterranean but its timing coincided with the diplomat spat between Spain and the UK.

As a precautionary measure and for deterrence purposes, the Spaniards had also their Armada nearby, so the whole thing got very 18th century very fast. “Will history repeat itself? Wonder some experts, saying that time will tell and rejecting the idea of a new naval war between the old foes and new rivals. They share in this 21st century many common economic and vital interests which they cannot afford to squander.

According to some British analysts, the Spaniards are making a fuss again over the Rock they have coveted ever since ceding it to Britain in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht.

They suspect the Spanish government is stoking up the issue of Gibraltar as a decoy to divert the attention from its internal political predicaments which include accusations of corruption, high unemployment rate and the unpopular austerity measures.

They urge the government of Madrid to show common sense, saying if it claims sovereignty over the Rock and wants to retrieve it, Spain should be prepared to hand over the two cities of Ceuta and Melilla to Morocco.

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