Saber-rattling and hell freezing over

The latest dispute between Spain and Britain over Gibraltar is just the latest of many diplomatic altercations in a saga that has been running for 300 years

Pedestrians and drivers cross the tarmac of the Gibraltar airport in front of the Rock.
Pedestrians and drivers cross the tarmac of the Gibraltar airport in front of the Rock.JON NAZCA (REUTERS)

The British government is trying to calm tensions in response to Spain’s increased border checks at Gibraltar that have caused long delays, saying that while it will not cede sovereignty of the Overseas Territory, it will seek a political solution.

"Our differences with Spain over Gibraltar will be resolved by political means through our relationship with Spain as EU partners, and not by disproportionate measures such as the delays at the border that we have seen over the last week," reads a Foreign Office communiqué issued on Monday.

"Prime Minister David Cameron has made it clear that the British government will comply with its constitutional commitments to the people of Gibraltar and will not accept any compromise on its sovereignty," the Foreign Office said in its statement.

Spain and Gibraltar have been at loggerheads for months over the activities of Spanish fishing boats in waters that Gibraltar says are under its sovereignty.

In late July, Gibraltar dropped over 70 large concrete blocks in the disputed zone to create an artificial reef that will prevent Spanish fishing boats operating there.

In response, Spanish police at the border crossing have been carrying out exhaustive checks on vehicles coming into and out of Gibraltar, creating delays of up to seven hours, mainly inconveniencing Spaniards.

Spain has suggested imposing a 50-euro fee on all vehicles leaving

The EU has been trying to settle a dispute over fishing rights, but is not expecting a breakthrough in the short term and results may ultimately turn on if the UK is willing to take Spain to court to clarify the legal position on the sovereignty of waters.

Cameron last spoke to his counterpart, Mariano Rajoy, about the issue at a European council meeting in June.

Speaking on BBC radio on Monday, Gibraltar's Chief Minister Fabian Picardo accused the Spanish government of behaving like the Franco regime, saying "hell will freeze over" before the authorities in Gibraltar remove the reef. "We've seen it before during Franco's time during the 1960s but I think all of us hoped that those politics were never going to come back," said Picardo.

The 1.2-km frontier between Spain and Gibraltar was closed for most of the 1970s and the early 1980s due to the dispute over the status of the territory.

Civil Guard checks creating lengthy delays at colony border


Spanish police are continuing to carry out exhaustive checks on vehicles crossing into and out of Gibraltar, creating lengthy delays in the process. Over the weekend, vehicles were kept waiting for around two hours while Civil Guard officers searched vehicles and questioned owners and passengers. Last week, the checks led to waits of up to seven hours and lengthy tailbacks affecting thousands of people.

The measures are Spain's response to Gibraltar's decision to build an artificial reef in British territorial waters using concrete blocks, a move that Madrid says will further damage the area's fishing industry.

Spain's Foreign Ministry has announced a series of measures in response that include a congestion charge on all vehicles entering or leaving Gibraltar, along with a plan to combat tax fraud by identifying around 7,000 people registered for tax purposes in Gibraltar, but who live in Spain. "Policies that damage Spain will come at a price," a government source said.

But the punitive measures are also affecting Spaniards. "The politicians need to sort this out some other way," said Ana Belén Gracia, who lives in the neighboring town of La Línea de la Concepción, on Sunday, and waited more than two hours to enter Gibraltar to buy cheap tobacco. "If they are going to carry out reprisals, they should do so in Madrid," she said. "If we all got together and made ourselves heard, they would have to pay attention to us, because in the meantime, it doesn't matter whether the wait is five or six hours. They are making fools out of us."

Emilio Hermida, who lives in Gibraltar but works in Spain, complained about the delays. "The queues are very long, and the Spanish authorities ought to do something about this. The politicians need to sit down and talk this over and resolve the conflict some other way, because this is just making matters worse," he said.

Kayron Mericeca, a teacher at a school in Gibraltar, said he had planned to spend the day "visiting the area and doing a bit of shopping." He said he had waited 90 minutes to pass through the police checks. "I lived in England for eight years, and only returned to Gibraltar a short while ago, and didn't know anything about these delays. At the end of the day, we're Europeans, and we have nothing against Spain that would prompt them to cause us these problems."

Ascteg, an association of Spaniards who work in Gibraltar, has sent a letter to Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy asking his Popular Party (PP) government to put an end to the delays. The letter is supported by the main political parties in La Linea's town council, but not the PP.

La Línea's mayor, Gemma Araújo of the Socialist Party, has described the police's actions as "inhumane, and not worthy of a European government."

Last week, she said: "The central government's representatives have rejected our help to sort this out, so all we can do is help those who are having to wait for hours in their cars by giving them water and by providing medical assistance if needed. The attitude of the government is more like that of a dictatorship than a democracy. Rather than affecting Gibraltar, this is hurting Spanish tourists and workers."

Gibraltar has complained to the European Commission over what it says are unreasonable controls at the border, saying they violate European Union rules on free circulation.

Spain claims sovereignty over the Rock, which stands on the southernmost tip of the Iberian peninsula but has been a British Overseas Territory since the Treaty of Utrecht, the 300th anniversary of which was in July. But the UK Government has made it clear it will not negotiate over sovereignty as long as Gibraltarians want to remain British.

Under the previous Socialist Party government Spain softened its stance, discussing other issues without bringing up sovereignty while agreeing to give Gibraltar a voice in any talks with Britain over its status. But the government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has taken a harder line regarding its claim on the territory.

Picardo on Monday accused Spanish Foreign Minister Jose García-Margallo of "belligerence" when he suggested imposing a 50-euro fee on all vehicles entering or leaving the Rock through its border with Spain.

Spain has claimed money raised by the border fee could be used to help Spanish fishermen who have lost out because of damage to fishing grounds allegedly caused by Gibraltar authorities.

García-Margallo has also said he wants the Spanish tax authorities to investigate the properties owned by 7,000 Gibraltarians in neighboring parts of Spain, as well as threatening to close Spanish airspace to flights en route to Gibraltar. He has also said Spain will stop concrete and materials used to build the artificial reef being brought over the border, as well as changing the law so online gaming companies in Gibraltar have to use Spanish servers and thus pay tax to Spain.

The British Foreign Office said on Monday that the UK expects Madrid to live up to the commitments it made in the 2006 Córdoba Agreement, which included deals on issues such as borders and access for flights, as well as establishing a tripartite forum for regular dialogue between Britain, Spain and Gibraltar.

Downing Street's conciliatory approach seems to reflect a belief that Spain's saber-rattling is largely for a domestic audience, coming as it does amid a long-running scandal involving illegal financing of the ruling Popular Party.

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