British, Spanish ships almost come to blows over 'The Rock'

The British navy and Spanish civil guard faced off today over a fishing dispute off the Gibraltar coast. Spain maintains it only ceded Gibraltar to the British, not the waters around it.

Jon Nazca/Reuters
The rock (back) of the British Colony of Gibraltar is seen at dusk from La Linea de la Concepcion, southern Spain on May 18.

The British Royal Navy and Spain’s Civil Guard engaged in a testy three hour standoff this morning over the sovereignty of waters off Gibraltar that devolved into bad-mouthing and at least one small collision. 

Spanish boats were fishing in waters claimed by both Spain and the UK when Gibraltarian police speedboats, backed up by the British Royal Navy, encircled them. Spanish Civil Guard armed patrollers and a helicopter came to the fishermen’s defense, prompting the Royal Navy ship to intervene, setting off a shouting match, and causing at least one minor, and apparently accidental, collision.

It’s not the first standoff at sea between Spain and Britain, but it is the most serious in decades. The new Gibraltar government said when it came to power in December that a 1999 agreement that gave Spain rights to fish off its coast was unconstitutional and began forcing back Spanish ships. Spain insists on returning to the 1999 agreement, but refuses to negotiate with Gibraltar.

The spat is exacerbating strains that began last week, when Spain’s monarchy snubbed Queen Elizabeth’s diamond jubilee in protest of next month’s planned official visit to Gibraltar of Britain's Prince Edward, the youngest son of Queen Elizabeth, and his wife, Sophie, Countess of Wessex.

Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo, who will meet his British counterpart William Hague in London next week, said a diplomatic solution to the issue of Gibraltar's sovereignty was necessary, but emphasized that Spain would protect its fishing fleet. Spain’s Interior Ministry said its ships would not accept “intimidation or humiliations.”

Spain ceded control of Gibraltar to what is now the United Kingdom in 1713 in the Treaty of Utrecht. The minute territory of 2.6 square miles nicknamed the “Rock” is a peninsula off Spain on the Mediterranean coast just off the entrance to the Atlantic Ocean and it gives Britain access to the Mediterranean. (See map of Gibraltar.)

The UK recognizes it as one of its overseas territories and its 30,000 inhabitants have British citizenship. But Spain has historically rejected British and Gibraltarian claims over the waters beyond Gibraltar's port, arguing that the treaty never included any mention of them. 

18th century tactics?

Fabian Picardo, the Gibraltar head of government, accused Spain of an “obviously carefully premeditated challenge to our indisputable sovereignty, jurisdiction, and control of British Gibraltar Territorial Waters and our airspace.”

“Those who are orchestrating these dangerous confrontations need to come to their senses and accept the challenge, once and for all, to litigate their claims to our territory in the relevant international tribunals established for that purpose in the 21st century and not put people's safety and security at risk trying to advance their position out at sea as if in the 18th century,” Mr. Picardo said.

Gibraltar has been a historically sensitive issue for Spain, which lost the territory in the War of Spanish Succession in 1704. It was a humiliating conquest, but Spain's claim, based on being the original owners of Gibraltar, is also hypocritical – Spain controls two small enclaves in Morocco.  

Britain's claim is more of an anachronism. Gibraltar is of little strategic importance now, but Britain can’t retreat from its legal commitments either, even if the sovereignty issue appears irrelevant within the framework of the European Union.

An earlier Spanish-British agreement for shared sovereignty was overwhelmingly rejected by Gibraltarians through a referendum in 2002. A European Court recognized Spain’s claim over the waters, but the issue has not reached Europe’s highest court.

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