Special Feature

The UK government must “get off the fence” over Gibraltar, says Foreign Affairs Committee

Sir Richard Ottaway, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC), shares their strong recommendations on Gibraltar.

It's time for Britain to "get off the fence" over and take a "tougher line" over Spain's behavior towards Gibraltar, says the Foreign Affairs Committee. (Photo: Getty)
It's time for Britain to "get off the fence" over and take a "tougher line" over Spain's behavior towards Gibraltar, says the Foreign Affairs Committee. (Photo: Getty)

When problems emerged in Gibraltar last summer, with seven-hour-long delays to cross the border, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the UK parliament took a strong interest in what our government was doing in response. We published our report on the matter on the 2nd of July and said that the behaviour of Spain toward Gibraltar is unacceptable.

A NATO and EU ally is, as a matter of policy, deliberately impacting the economy and functioning of a British Overseas Territory. It is time for the UK government to take a tougher line.

The dispute has a 300-year long history. However, in the last three years, the Partido Popular government in Spain has taken a more hard-line approach to the dispute. It has significantly increased its pressure on Gibraltar and its people. As a result the Gibraltarians have suffered deliberately imposed border delays, aggressive maritime incursions, calculated pressure at the EU and UN, as well as inflammatory rhetoric from Spanish ministers about its sovereignty and its economic affairs.

Spain’s actions have placed the UK government in a difficult position. It has a strong bilateral relationship with Spain that is in the interest of all British citizens, including the one million Britons who live in Spain.

But the government also has responsibilities toward Gibraltar and it cannot ignore actions by Spain that are intended to make the lives of Gibraltarians more difficult.

First, we regret that talks including all three partners (Spain, the UK and Gibraltar) have been suspended, and ask the government to set out what offer it has made to Spain, and how it intends to restart the talks.

We are deeply concerned about the dramatic increase in maritime incursions into British Gibraltar Territorial Waters, and the hostile tactics of some of the vessels that conduct them.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) rightly protests about each incursion, but we were disappointed to find that the FCO sometimes lodges diplomatic protests weeks after the event, robbing them of all force. This gives the wrong impression to Spain about how seriously the UK takes this issue. We recommend that protests are lodged within seven days.

We have no doubt that delays imposed by Spain at the border with Gibraltar are politically motivated, and that the border is being used as a means of coercion.

The government should state publicly that it will take legal action against Spain in the European Court if there is little improvement at the border in the next six months.

We considered the possibility of Gibraltar joining the Schengen Area while the UK remains outside. Although we saw the merit in this idea, we suspect that the legal and economic implications could be considerable.

Spain continues to use international institutions as a means of applying pressure on Gibraltar. Gibraltar remains on the UN list of Non-Self-Governing Territories, despite repeated UK government attempts to de-list it. And only a few weeks ago Spanish MEP’s were trying to limit Gibraltarian aviation rights in the European Parliament. Spain also continues to refuse to allow direct military movements between Gibraltar and Spain, even among its NATO partners.

As a result of all this pressure, Gibraltar feels it is under siege. The government’s laudable attempts to “de-escalate” the dispute have not worked. They were right to try diplomacy but they must now take a more robust approach (as long as this is agreed with the government of Gibraltar). We recommend that the government take some immediate actions now, including:

  • More prompt diplomatic protests about incursions and border delays, and summoning the ambassador;
  • Increased efforts at the EU and UN on Gibraltar’s behalf;
  • Renewed effort to establish trilateral talks;
  • Withholding UK support for Spain’s international goals (such as membership of the UN Security Council) unless Spain’s attitude toward Gibraltar changes.

In terms of more serious measures, we further recommend that the government be more robust in its defence of the territorial waters around Gibraltar, and have asked that it report back on how it intends to do this.

Finally, we recommended that if these measures do not improve the situation within six months, the UK should take Spain to court for infringement of EU obligations at the border.

Sir Richard Ottaway MP is Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee