Royal Navy Gibraltar visit “routine” say diplomats in Madrid and London

Annual expedition will anchor at Rota and the Rock as territorial dispute simmers

The British light aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious during maneuvers.
The British light aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious during maneuvers. royal navy

Britain is to send a Royal Navy fleet to Gibraltar, the Ministry of Defense (MOD) has confirmed. The detachment is scheduled to leave the UK on Monday, after which it will it make a stop in the Mediterranean before heading to the Persian Gulf to participate in a large-scale military exercise. The fleet consists of three frigates and their auxiliary vessels, which will dock in Gibraltar, and the Invincible-class helicopter carrier HMS Illustrious, which will weigh anchor at the nearby Spanish-American military base in Rota. It is expected that the fleet will arrive in Spain on August 18.

The Spanish government has confirmed that it was informed of the visit as the Royal Navy had asked permission to make a stopover in Rota. It said it was merely a “routine” expedition and no cause for concern. A government source played down the fact that a British fleet was due to arrive in Gibraltar in the middle of the ongoing diplomatic spat over sovereignty of the waters around the Rock, stating that the fishing conflict was “isolated” and does not affect the otherwise warm relations between Madrid and London.

The maneuvers, under the operational name Cougar 13, are the third of their kind to be carried out by the Royal Navy in the last three years. During the Cougar 12 expedition, the fleet idled for three days in Gibraltar before engaging in a joint exercise with the French and Albanian navies.

“Gibraltar is a strategic base for the MOD and as such the vessels of the Royal Navy visit it periodically as part of routine exercises,” an MOD spokesman told the Daily Telegraph.

At the same time, a Downing Street spokesman told Efe news agency that British Prime Minister David Cameron informed his Spanish counterpart Mariano Rajoy of the expedition during a telephone conversation last week over the diplomatic crisis in Gibraltar. Spanish authorities gave permission for Illustrious to anchor at Rota several days ago.

The fleet is due to take part in allied exercises, which coupled with the fact that Rota is a NATO military base, obliges Spain to accede to the UK’s request. However, permission to anchor in Rota precludes a fleet from making a subsequent stop in Gibraltar under the terms of international conventions. Thus the British fleet will divide up on arrival in the Strait of Gibraltar. The only cause for a diplomatic incident would be if any of the British vessels made a stop in both ports.

According to the MOD, the expedition has been planned for some time and will last four months. Gibraltar’s first minister, Fabian Picardo, this week called for the British government to send the navy to the Strait over the fishing conflict but it is abundantly clear he already knew it was going to be deployed.

HMS Illustrious, which served in the Falklands conflict, Iraq, Bosnia and Sierra Leone, will head the fleet, which also includes the frigates Monroe and Westminster, two further battleships and five support vessels, as well as thousands of navy personnel and Royal Marines.

The fishing impasse is the largest diplomatic crisis over the Rock in years. In 2002, when negotiations over co-sovereignty were ongoing, Britain accidentally invaded Spain when a detachment of Marines from 45 Commando mistakenly stormed a beach in La Linea de la Concepción, the Spanish town that borders Gibraltar. They were repulsed by two Spanish police officers and both nations made light of the incident.

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