28 May 2012

This business with Gibraltar

When I was in the UK recently it was reported on the BBC news that the Queen of Spain wouldn't be going to QEII's big jubilee lunch because of "disputes over Gibraltar".  Most people assumed therefore that Sofia wanted to deliver a snub to her distant relative (they are both descended from Queen Victoria) because of  Spain's claim to sovereignty over the Rock. The ludicrous claims to Gibraltar must not endanger Spain's ties to Britain, spluttered The Telegraph.

In slightly calmer terms, Guardian readers were told were told that the Spanish government had ordered the boycott at the last minute because it would be "inappropriate under the present circumstances", implying that this referred to the forthcoming visit of Prince Edward for the Rock's own jubilee celebrations.

This all struck me as a bit odd, because (a) the squabble over sovereignty is hardly new, (b) Prince Edward's visit was announced over a month ago, and (c) Sofia is known for her ability to keep her dignified head high above the mire.  So why this last-minute U-turn?  A Spanish news item from 17 May gives us a clue:
Queen cancels trip to London in protest about Gibraltar fishing rights   Queen Sofía has cancelled a planned trip to London, originally scheduled for tomorrow, Friday, as part of Queen Elizabeth's Jubilee celebrations, at a luncheon at Windsor hosted by the Queen and Prince Philip. The Spanish Government deemed the visit 'inappropriate' given the present conflict between Spain and Britain over the rights of Spanish fishermen in the waters around Gibraltar.  This is added to the three-day visit by Prince Edward planned for June 11. Diplomatic sources have said that the conflict was reopened after discussions between the Gibraltar Government and fishing representatives broke down last week. 
So the current spat, it appears, is less about sovereignty of the Rock itself than about its territorial waters.  When Gibraltar was given to Britain in perpetuity 200 years ago under the Treaty of Utrecht, there was no such concept, but Gibraltar is claiming a territorial limit of 1.5 miles to the west and 3 miles to the east.  Spain however only acknowledges the harbour area (shown in orange on this map).


In 1999 an agreement was reached allowing 70 fishing boats from the Spanish towns of La Linea and Algeciras to fish in these disputed waters, but a couple of months ago the Gibraltar police and the Royal Navy started harassing these boats at sea, buzzing them at high speed, driving them back to port and depriving the men of their livelihood.  Despite protection from Spanish Guardia Civil patrol boats and helicopters, similar incidents have taken place regularly since then.  Last night, one small fishing craft from La Linea was surrounded by four Gibraltar Police and six Guardia Civil boats, with a Royal Navy ship standing by.  Is this really the best use of their resources?
La Divina Providencia, just trying to catch a few fish
The Spanish have got their own back by routinely searching every vehicle entering and leaving Gibraltar, causing three-hour queues at the border (and depriving many British expats of their regular trips to Morrisons supermarket).

Gibraltar's excuse for breaking the agreement is that the ships are doing environmental damage by fishing with nets rather than hooks.  For Gib to wave the Green flag is a bit like Jeremy Clarkson telling people to save fuel by driving more slowly.  The practice of bunkering, where tankers and other large vessels line up out in the bay to be piped with Gibraltar's tax-free fuel and avoid docking fees, results in a huge amount of spillage and has been described as a toxic timebomb waiting to explode.  However this is hugely profitable for Gibraltar, and you wouldn't want all those fishing boats getting in the way, would you?

Ships around El Peñon waiting for their tax-free fuel
I really don't care whose Rock it is, I detest national boundaries and nationalism of all kinds.  But surely in this day and age Spain and the UK can sit down and thrash out a civilised solution to the dispute?  We are both in the European Union and NATO, so there shouldn't be a conflict of interest between the two countries either in economic or in military terms.  The Gibraltarians themselves could wave whatever flag they felt like, and the online gambling companies and  financial institutions who currently benefit from whatever concessions they are offered there could start paying tax and observing laws like the rest of Europe.

If Gibraltar increased the duty on tobacco, fuel and other goods so their prices were in line with Spain's, smuggling would stop and the strict border security would no longer be necessary.  They could use the revenue to improve their appalling roads and provide further education facilities for school-leavers - there are none at present.

The latest round of talks is scheduled to take place in London tomorrow.  For the sake of those fishermen and their families, who are now dependent on food parcels from Caritas, not to mention we poor teabag-deprived expats, I hope they sort something out soon.

2 comments:

Andy Hall said...

Interesting read and I appreciate your exposing of unhelpful activities by Gibraltar - sadly we're not likely to get this balance via the mainstream news - very disappointing.

The Bay has to be shared, so it would make sense to have a cross border party work on what activities are sustainable and in the interest of both parties. Despise the tax free enclaves - troublesome distortions that are exploited by the rich!

Anonymous said...

It would be good if you got your facts right about Gibraltar .