Gibraltar tensions strain UK-Spain ties

Traffic queue at Gibraltar border, 7 Aug 13 Spain's tougher border checks have led to long queues of traffic

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Is Gibraltar a useful distraction for the Spanish government? That is the question British officials have been pondering over recent days.

Is Madrid set on ratcheting up tension to deflect attention from a corruption scandal engulfing Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and an ailing economy which just might see growth by the end of the year?

The Spanish dismiss such questions. They insist that the tension started when the government of Gibraltar began dropping 70 concrete blocks into the sea and creating an artificial reef in order to replenish fish stocks. Madrid says it has damaged the livelihoods of Spanish scallop dredgers.

At the weekend the Spanish Foreign Minister, Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo, declared "the party's over". He threatened to charge motorists 50 euros (£43) for crossing the border, to impose flight restrictions and to investigate the tax status of 6,000 Gibraltarians who have properties in Spain. On recent occasions new, rigorous border checks have resulted in six-hour queues.

The British ambassador in Madrid has made a formal complaint about the threat of imposing charges. Today - in a reflection of the seriousness of the crisis - David Cameron spoke directly to Mr Rajoy. The conversation was described as "constructive" and, according to Downing Street, Mr Rajoy promised to ease the border controls. (A subsequent Spanish government statement made no mention of concessions on border controls.)

Spain insisted, however, that its fishing rights had been violated. The two foreign ministers will now meet to try and resolve these issues. David Cameron made it clear that "Britain will always stand up for the people of Gibraltar".

Economic magnet

It may be that a meeting finds a compromise and the Rock continues on its comfortable way. It has a budget surplus of £37m, GDP growth of 7.8% and GDP per capita of £41,138. Thousands of people from nearby towns like La Linea depend on doing business with the Rock. But there will always be tension. Spain claims sovereignty over Gibraltar, while its people - about 30,000 in total - are determined to remain British.

It is relatively easy for the Spanish authorities to make life difficult. The British have been examining whether they could mount a legal challenge under EU law to any border charges. Would a levy be permitted under the EU rules governing free movement? The think tank Open Europe says that "discrimination is clearly prohibited for the purpose of employment... however, the right to free movement covers the right to live and work in another member state. It does not address the more specific issue of travelling between two member states for this purpose". So the legal rights are not immediately clear.

Gibraltar, like the UK, is not part of the Schengen area, where EU citizens are generally free of passport checks. So Spain is entitled to impose controls on its border. But a spokesman for the European Commission said the action would have to be "proportionate". Whether a 50-euro charge on motorists falls into that category is hard to judge.

In any event, legal challenges would take time. Ultimately - as the leaders of Britain and Spain agreed today - they do not want the issue of Gibraltar to undermine relations between the two countries, and that might just lead to a lowering of tensions. In 2012, 13.6 million British visitors flew to the Iberian peninsula. A lot of those travellers spent money in Spain.

Gavin Hewitt Article written by Gavin Hewitt Gavin Hewitt Europe editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    I think that one of the most important issues here is that the concrete blocks are being dumped to prevent Spanish fishermen from using illegal fishing methods. If these fishing methods were not used the blocks would be immaterial and unnecessary. Here in Spain (I am a Spanish national) the press are conveniently omitting this fact.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Falklanders should WANT to be attached to Argentina. Gibraltarians should WANT to be attached to Spain. They should be courted, wooed, encouraged, supported, bribed by those countries. It would be better for everybody.

    But clearly and overwhelmingly they want to be British as expressed in referenda. Even in Gibraltar where most are not ethnic AngloSaxon or Celt.

    Leave them be.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    Problem: Domestic unrest and economic stagnation?
    Solution: Resurrect a moribund territorial claim that you couldn't have given the time of day back when the going was good but, which now gives everyone a jolly good excuse to get behind the government.

    Argentina - Falklands, China - South China Sea, India/Pakistan - Kashmir, Spain - Gibraltar .... it's all SO 19th century and SO predictable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 141.

    This is not a case of old British colonialism.It is similar in many ways to the Falklands,except the legal position re Gib is clearer: we own it by Treaty Like The Falklands,UK would give it to the other country claiming it
    (Argentina or Spain) if the residents of these small territories wanted it.They most definitely do not, so UK has to tell Arg/Spain to get lost--it's legal and democratic !

  • rate this

    Comment number 171.

    Britain would like to allow Gib full independence.

    The problem is The Treaty of Utrecht clearly states, should Britain give up it's sovereign rights then Spain has "first refusal"

    The People of Gib' have spoken they know the Treaty Backwards, and know the consequences of cessation, hence they vote to remain British.

    They can see how Crap Spain is over the border, why would they want that?


Comments 5 of 473



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