Cameron ‘seriously concerned’ after Spain threatens new border controls for Gibraltar
Row over fishing near Rock sparks latest tensions
Workers wait in line with their motorcycles and scooters to enter Spain (left) at its border with the British territory of Gibraltar. Photograph: Jon Nazca/Reuters
Britain and Spain’s long-standing disagreement over Gibraltar has intensified as David Cameron says he is “seriously concerned” after Madrid warned it was considering imposing new controls relating to the territory.
A row over fishing in the sea near the Rock, whose British sovereignty Spain disputes, sparked the latest tensions. In July, Gibraltar ordered massive blocks of concrete studded with hooks to be dropped into the water, preventing Spanish vessels from fishing there.
Spanish authorities then stepped up security checks at the Gibraltar border, meaning many of those crossing the frontier have had to wait up to seven hours in the heat of the Mediterranean summer. Madrid has insisted these are necessary to battle a suspected increase in tobacco smuggling, although Gibraltar says the measures are direct reprisals.
The security clampdown at the border seems to have eased in recent days. However, Spanish foreign minister José Manuel García-Margallo says his government is preparing a battery of measures for Gibraltar, to “intensify the application of Spanish and EU legislation related to fighting smuggling and tax fraud and also environmental protection.”
Specifically, the foreign minister has suggested that a €50 “congestion charge” could be introduced for vehicles going to and from the Rock and that Spanish air space could be closed to flights destined for the territory.
In Britain, a spokesman for Mr Cameron said yesterday that his government was “seeking an explanation [from Spain] regarding the reports that they might target Gibraltar with further measures”.
Mr García-Margallo’s words have drawn a more irate response from Gibraltar’s chief minister, Fabian Picardo, who yesterday described the Spanish stance as “sabre-rattling of the sort we haven’t seen for some time”.
“The things that Mr García-Margallo has said are more reminiscent of the type of statement you’d hear from North Korea than from an EU partner,” he added, also comparing Madrid’s approach to that of the Franco dictatorship in the 1960s.
Mr Picardo said that “hell will freeze over” before Gibraltar removed the concrete blocks that are keeping out Spanish fishing vessels.
The European Union says it is attempting to help broker a solution. Yesterday a spokesman in Brussels said European Commission representatives were planning to meet Spanish officials in the autumn.
This year marks the 300th anniversary of the Treaty of Utrecht, under which Spain handed Gibraltar over to Britain. However, the Rock, which has strategic importance due to its position between the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean, remains a raw issue for many Spaniards, who see it as a colonial anachronism.
On taking power 18 months ago, the current conservative government said contesting its sovereignty was a foreign policy priority.
Many in Spain suspect that prime minister Mariano Rajoy is using the issue as a distraction from his own political woes. Last week he appeared before congress to defend himself from allegations that he and his Partido Popular (PP) had been involved in a scheme of illegal donations and payouts to politicians.
For columnist David Torres, writing in the left-wing Público newspaper, the administration’s actions in recent weeks over Gibraltar are “a smokescreen that is needed to cover up the government’s disgraces.”
Meanwhile, in the right-wing daily La Razón, Alfonso Merlos applauded the government’s plans to introduce tougher measures to battle tax evasion and other illegalities in Gibraltar, which, he wrote, “has sadly become a hotbed of crime at every level.”