In part of its ongoing dispute with the Spanish government over the sovereignty status of Gibraltar, Spain’s ambassador to the United Kingdom Federico Trillo-Figueroa was summoned to the Foreign Office before the weekend for what was undoubtedly a heated exchange.
The redress was in reaction to a recent naval incident wherein a civilian vessel from Gibraltar was almost seized by the Armada Española and Spanish customs officials were it not for the intervention of the Royal Gibraltar Police.
Europe minister David Lidington explained on Thursday that Britain had “repeatedly made diplomatic protests to Spain over attempts by Spanish state authorities to exercise jurisdiction in British Gibraltar territorial waters.” He condemned Spain’s “provocative incursions” and urged its government “to ensure that they are not repeated.”
The minister furnished other details of the latest incident, reporting that a Spanish “warship” took a tour of Gibraltar’s territorial waters for some time, followed by the arrival of Spanish customs craft seeking to intercept the civilian boat.
While this particular encounter may have been a genuine anti-smuggling operation on the part of the Spanish authorities, it is difficult to imagine that the Royal Gibraltar Police and subsequently the Foreign Office would be so involved if that were so, considering the potential humiliation of having backed a gang of smugglers. (Quite a concern in the region. Gibraltar, according to some Spanish sources, is a veritable twenty-first century Tortuga.)
In any case, the arrival of Spanish navy craft in British territorial waters makes it an audacious but interesting indicator of the mood of the Spanish government which has already been established as one of somewhat belligerent disinterest into what the elected government of Gibraltar has to say on the issue, abandoning tripartite talks earlier in the year.
Such a foray, from what is on paper a NATO ally and fellow European Union member state, into British sovereign waters and the intimidation of citizens of a overseas territory, should probably receive a sterner rejoiner than the Foreign Office wallahs are likely to issue. The assignment of a Type 45 or Daring class destroyer to the Gibraltar Squadron of the Royal Navy may be a clearer statement of the British position on “Gib,” something the Spanish foreign minister, José Manuel García-Margallo, has previously requested from his British counterpart William Hague, even if gunboat diplomacy is out of favor these days.
The attempted seizure shortly follows what many Britons and Gibraltans perceived as another example of unjust harassment, including six hour detained customs lines, by Spanish border authorities as they attempted to enter the tiny peninsular which has been a point of very sour diplomatic grapes between the three parties involved.
Foreign Policy reported in February that Gibraltar could become the subject of even greater tension and it would seem that has come to pass with Fabian Picardo, head of Gibraltar’s government, making demands that London protest this kind of interference most formally, joined by British politicos who have expressed consternation, including a senior Foreign Office official to the Spanish ambassador at what they see as Spanish interference. Ambassador Trillo, apparently a shrewd legal mind and former defense minister, is, in the opinion of this commentator, unlikely to be an easy nut to crack in any setting.
Given the string of incidents of late and the state of diplomatic bad will between Britain, Gibraltar and Spain, this fresh intrusion into the affairs of what are practically in law British nationals and into British territorial waters to boot, will do nothing to win Madrid over to the inhabitants of “The Rock.” Not that that would seem to be a concern of the Spanish foreign office, customs officials or indeed, navy. Much like the Argentinian claim on the Falkland Islands, the Spanish claim and interferences are most unwelcome by the people who live there, a view they have expressed (in the case of Gibraltar) in two referendums. These displays, intrusions and other belligerent mistakes only serve to reinforce the feeling of futility in Britain and her overseas territories of dealing with such states.