Britain threatens Spain with legal action on Gibraltar

Britain said it might try to force Madrid to abandon tighter controls at the border with the contested British overseas territory of Gibraltar.

By , Correspondent

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    Drivers wait in line on a hot summer day to enter to Spain at its border with the British territory of Gibraltar in front of the Rock (rear) at Winston Churchill Avenue in Gibraltar, south of Spain August 9, 2013.
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Tensions are escalating between Britain and Spain over Gibraltar – the tiny, British-controlled sliver of land at the southern-most edge of the Iberian Peninsula – and the water that surrounds it.

Arguments between the two countries started with Gibraltar’s attempts to create an artificial reef by sinking massive concrete blocks off its coast in July. Spain’s government was infuriated, claiming the artificial reef prevented Spanish ships from fishing and demanding that the blocks be removed. This month Spain imposed harsh custom-border controls in what analysts say may have been a retaliatory move. 

Recommended: Test your Iberia IQ: How much do you know about Spain and Portugal?

Now, a spokesman for British Prime Minister David Cameron has announced that Britain may seek legal action against its fellow European Union member, reports Reuters. 

Cameron's spokesman said Britain thinks the tighter border controls are "politically motivated and totally disproportionate" and should be stopped.

"The prime minister is disappointed by the failure of the Spanish to remove the additional border checks this weekend and we are now considering what legal action is open to us," the spokesman said.

Taking legal action against Spain would be “unprecedented,” said the spokesman. Britain could lodge a complaint with the European Commission, arguing that Spain is in breach of EU law by blocking free movement, according to the BBC’s James Robbins.

However, as Britain is not part of the group of 26 European countries who have abolished passport and immigration controls across common borders called the Schengen Area, inspections at the border between Spain and Gibraltar are legal. 

Spain has heightened border checks, resulting in very long queues that have disrupted not only tourists but also locals who commute in and out of Gibraltar for work, reports Reuters.

The government in Madrid claims that the increased customs measures are needed to prevent smuggling, writes the Financial Times. 

Gibraltar has been a point of contention between Britain and Spain for centuries. The territory was officially ceded to Britain in 1713 as part of the Treaty of Utrecht that ended the Spanish War of Succession. Since then, Spain has challenged Britain’s sovereignty several times, though Gibraltarians have voted overwhelmingly against even shared sovereignty, most recently in a 2002 referendum.

Spain announced that it has considered appealing to the United Nations over the spat. They are also considering reaching out to Argentina, whose dispute with Britain over the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands led the two countries to war in 1982, reports FT. 

An official from Spain’s official foreign ministry said that Madrid was considering using a planned trip to Buenos Aires by Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo in September to establish a joint front over Gibraltar and the disputed Falkland Islands off the coast of the South American country.

“We are analyzing this possibility among several others, such as appealing to the United Nations,” the official said. “There is nothing defined yet, but there are several options being considered.” The official declined to comment on whether any approach had already been made to the Argentine government.

Meanwhile, several British naval vessels set sail for the Mediterranean today, with one ship set to dock at Gibraltar, reports Agence-France Press. Though reports in the Spanish media have called this an effort to spook Spanish authorities, British officials claim the naval exercises have been planned for months. 

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