EU enters Gibraltar row
The European Commission will send a team of observers to Gibraltar, a British territory, “as soon as possible” in an effort to end a dispute between the United Kingdom and Spain.
Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy agreed yesterday to the despatch of the observers during a phone call with José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission.
Details about the mission remain to be resolved, but its purpose would be to consider what the Commission described as “the border control / movement of people and goods questions”.
The EU’s intervention follows a call made to Barroso on Friday (16 August) by the British prime minister, David Cameron, asking the Commission to assess whether tightened border checks introduced by Spain violated EU rules on free movement.
In an effort to prevent a further escalation of tensions, the Commission yesterday said that an idea mooted by Spain, to charge visitors €50 for crossing the border, would be illegal.
Spain has said that it would use the money to compensate Spanish fishermen for losses that it says they have suffered because of restrictions on fishing created by Gibraltar’s government last month.
Recent Spanish governments have regularly contested Britain’s sovereignty over Gibraltar, gained through a treaty with Spain in 1713. The immediate trigger for the dispute, though, was a decision by Gibraltar’s government to drop 70 concrete blocks off the coast to create an artificial reef last month in an attempt to prevent overfishing and replenish fish stocks. Spain says that the decision was an attempt to limit access for Spanish trawlers, and argues that the reef is an environmental hazard.
Spain then tightened checks on the land border, describing the move as an attempt to curb tobacco smuggling. The result has been long delays for workers and tourists entering Gibraltar, a territory of 6.7 square kilometres populated by 30,000 people. Unlike Spain, the UK is not a member of Schengen zone of border-free travel.
The European Commission has called for the two countries to reach a diplomatic solution to their differences. The UK has, however, said that it is considering taking legal action against Spain in the European courts, while Spain has said it may ask the United Nations to consider its claim to the peninsula.
In addition to indicating that it might impose a border levy, Spain has indicated that it is considering restricting British access to Spanish air space and restricting the ability of ships to refuel in Gibraltar.
Graham Watson, a British Liberal member of the European Parliament, has called on the European Commission to ensure that the monitors’ mandate lasts until Spain agrees “to only carry out checks that are proportionate to the threat posed”.
“Anything short of this is unacceptable,” he said.
Watson had previously said that the UK should consider tightening checks on Spanish seafood and planes at British borders.
Three British warships arrived in Gibraltar yesterday. Britain says that their visit was planned long in advance.
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