British warship’s arrival stirs Gibraltar tensions
The warship Westminster, which Britain says is on a training mission, arrived a day after Spanish fishermen confronted British police vessels to protest an artificial reef limiting their access. Spain, meanwhile, has caused long border delays and said it may charge 50 euros to cross.
The New York Times
MADRID — A British warship docked in Gibraltar on Monday amid a dispute over access to the waters off Gibraltar, a British territory at the tip of the Iberian Peninsula that has long been a political sore point between Britain and Spain.
The European Commission on Monday stepped into the dispute between Britain and Spain over Gibraltar, saying that it would soon send inspectors there and warning Spain not to raise tensions further by charging people for crossing into the territory.
The British described the arrival of the warship, the Westminster, which was escorted by two smaller ships from the Royal Navy, as part of a long-planned military training operation, rather than a show of force aimed at Spain.
It came a day after Spanish fishermen confronted British police vessels to protest Gibraltar’s construction of an artificial reef that is limiting their access to the waters off the territory.
Although Spain has regularly challenged Britain’s 300-year-old control of Gibraltar, the territory’s decision to build the reef has heightened tensions considerably.
Gibraltar created the reef this month by dumping 70 concrete blocks into the sea in an attempt to prevent overfishing. Spain retaliated by tightening controls at the border, forcing cars to wait for hours to enter or leave the territory.
Spain has also said that it may charge 50 euros (about $67) to cross the border, saying that the additional revenue could help compensate Spanish fishermen for their losses.
On Monday, the European Commission, the executive agency of the European Union, warned Spain that such a border toll would violate European law.
The commission, however, agreed to send a team of inspectors to Gibraltar, after Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of Spain called José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, asking the agency to check Spanish claims that the territory had turned into a hub of money laundering and tobacco trafficking.
On Friday, Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain called Barroso to request that European inspectors be sent to Gibraltar to confirm that the toughened border checks by Spain amounted to a violation of European Union rules on the free movement of people and goods.
In an interview with the BBC on Monday, Fabian Picardo, the head of Gibraltar’s government, played down the significance of the arrival of the British warship.
“This was planned quite long before the issues that we’re having to deal with now,” he said.
“I’m certainly very hopeful that common sense is going to start to prevail and we will be able to go back to normality as soon as possible,” Picardo said.
At the same time, he has maintained a defiant stance toward Spain, telling the BBC recently that “hell will freeze over” before Gibraltar removes the concrete reef. Picardo also accused the Spanish government of escalating the Gibraltar dispute to divert attention from a scandal over a slush fund that has engulfed Rajoy and his governing Popular Party.
The Westminster, which left the British port of Portsmouth last Tuesday, was expected to make only a short stop in Gibraltar. A British aircraft carrier, the Illustrious, has also been sailing along the Spanish coast as part of the military training exercise, called Operation Cougar 13.
Britain secured control of Gibraltar in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht. Britain handles Gibraltar’s defense and international relations, but Gibraltar’s government has significant autonomy over trade, taxes and industry issues.