Spain and Britain are launched into a new battle over Gibraltar following the Spanish foreign minister’s threat to impose a hefty border-crossing fee on all vehicles entering or leaving the iconic British promontory at Spain's southern tip.
The two European Union member states have engaged in wars of words and tit-for-tat provocations for decades. Spain claims as its own the territory affectionately known as "The Rock," despite the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht that recognizes British sovereignty.
The latest dispute began two weeks ago when Gibraltar authorities began laying concrete blocks in disputed waters flanking the outcropping from the Spanish mainland. The officials said they were building an artificial reef to foster recovery of depleted fish stocks. Madrid has lambasted the project as an attempt to deprive local Spanish fishermen of their livelihood.
Spanish border guards provoked outrage among Gibraltar residents and throngs of summer tourists the weekend before last when they insisted on inspecting every vehicle crossing into or out of Spain at the border crossing, delaying drivers for as long as seven hours in searing late-summer heat. The Gibraltar government accused Spain of creating the border delays as part of an orchestrated “choke hold” on the territory and warned it could lead to injuries or deaths, noting that an ambulance had to be summoned to treat several blocked motorists with medical problems.
Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office called in Spanish Ambassador Federico Trillo on Friday for a warning that any repeat of the “disproportionate” July 28-30 border control measures would be unacceptable. The British office’s political director, Simon Gass, also reminded Trillo that Britain will defend its sovereignty over Gibraltar as long as the territory’s residents want to be British citizens.
"Disruption to border flows has a direct impact on the prosperity and well-being of communities on both sides of the border,” the foreign office said in a statement. "The [United Kingdom’] Government's position is that these delays are unjustified, unacceptable and have no place at a border between EU partners."
Rather than chastening Madrid, though, the diplomatic tongue-lashing appeared to have fueled Spain’s pique.
In an interview published Sunday in the conservative ABC newspaper [link in Spanish], Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo warned that Madrid plans to impose a 50-euro ($66) crossing fee for traffic to and from Gibraltar and was considering additional measures to close Spanish airspace to Gibraltar-bound planes, launch tax investigations into Gibraltar residents who own property in Spain and to impose Spanish regulation on the British territory's online gaming industries.
Garcia-Margallo said his predecessor, Miguel Angel Moratinos, had made damaging economic “concessions” to Gibraltar and that he planned to roll them back.
“The party is over,” Garcia-Margallo was quoted as saying.
Gibraltar’s chief minister, Fabian Picardo, matched the Spanish diplomat’s fighting words with some of his own, comparing Garcia-Margallo’s tactics with those of long-ruling strongman Gen. Francisco Franco and communist dictators.
“The things that Mr. Garcia-Margallo has said are more reminiscent of the type of statement you’d hear from North Korea than from an EU partner,” Picardo fumed in an interview with the BBC. He said that “hell will freeze over” before Gibraltar removes the artificial reef as demanded by Madrid.
The editor of the Gibraltar Chronicle, Dominique Searle, dismissed the Spanish threats of economic sanctions as “just noise.”
“The fishing issue isn’t about fish, it’s about sovereignty,” Searle wrote in a commentary published Monday. He accused Spain of making a scapegoat of the Gibraltar reef project to mute criticism of the Madrid government over alleged corruption and a 40% unemployment rate in the Spanish coastal area around Gibraltar.
Juan Moscoso del Prado, a spokesman for the opposition Spanish Socialist Workers Party, called the dispute over Gibraltar “an escalation of bravado” on both sides and warned that any crossing fee will only hurt the 10,000 people who commute between Spain and Gibraltar to get to their jobs.
The Guardian newspaper of Britain reported that Gibraltar, with fewer than 30,000 residents, hosts 12 million tourists a year and is a vital transit point for thousands of Moroccans who work in Europe and visit their homeland in summer.