ROCK OF CONTENTION

EC Rock mission to listen to both sides

Committee will look into allegations of wrongdoing by both Gibraltarian authorities and Spain

The conversation between Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and European Commission (EC) President José Manuel Durão Barroso on Monday has cleared up the role that Brussels will play in the row over Gibraltar. An EC technical mission due to travel to the Rock shortly to investigate allegations of wrongdoing from both Britain and Spain will be directed by Brussels, but also take into account the views of Spanish and British authorities.

Besides investigating intensified border checks that are significantly slowing down traffic to and from Gibraltar, as British Prime Minister David Cameron wants, the committee will also investigate Spanish allegations of tobacco smuggling and tax evasion in the British outpost.

However, the mission will not address Gibraltar's recent decision to sink large concrete blocks into the sea in a bid to prevent Spanish fishermen from casting their nets in the area, which Gibraltar claims as its own waters. Brussels already received a formal complaint over this issue from Spain's Agriculture Ministry on July 31. European authorities will investigate this in a separate procedure that will assess any negative impact that Gibraltar's actions may have on the marine environment, and consider sanctions. European technicians will travel to Gibraltar "as soon as possible," said an EU spokesman. The mission was initially set for mid-September.

What Rajoy and Barroso did not discuss is the Spanish government's proposal of charging a fee of up to 50 euros at the border crossing. The Commission has said this would be illegal if the money were charged for crossing the border, but not necessarily if it were a toll for the use of a road, for instance.