British-Spanish Relations Sour After Gibraltar Incursion

Tensions mount again after the Spanish navy tried to seize a civilian Gibraltan vessel.

A cable car gondola travels up the Rock of Gibraltar, September 20
A cable car gondola travels up the Rock of Gibraltar, September 20 (Andrew Tijou)

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.


  1. James, I see you more worried than at other times. Maybe you interest to see the seriousness of the situation.

    In any case, the solution is extremely simple: An informal agreement between the Environment Ministry of Gibraltar and Spanish fishermen of La Linea and Algeciras to regularize Fisheries.

  2. The article fails to mention the critical fact that the UN continues to list Gibraltar as a territory that needs to be decolonised by the UK.

    It is pure obfuscation to insist, as the UK does, that the current inhabitants of Gibraltar have a right under the principle of self-determination to determine the nationality of the land they live in. Under international law there are territorial limitations to the right of self-determination for transplanted populations living in colonial enclaves where a pre-colonial claim of sovereignty exists. This is the case with Gibraltar.

    A coloniser cannot legally disrupt the territorial integrity of another State by implanting its own population unto the territory it is colonising. In cases such as these, the inhabitants of the territory have a right to have their ‘interests’ considered but they have no right to unilaterally determine the nationality of the land they live in.

    Both the UN and ICJ have confirmed that the principle of territorial integrity complements and constrains the right to self-determination in cases such as Gibraltar. This is the reason why the UN adopted Resolution 2353 (XXII), which observed that the referendum conducted by Gibraltar in 1967 was invalid.

    The UN has repeatedly invited the UK to participate in discussions to achieve the de-colonisation of Gibraltar. The UK has also failed to honour its commitments under the Brussels Agreement in regard to Gibraltar.

    Spain has never recognised British sovereignty over the Bay of Algeciras. Not surprisingly therefore, it will continue to ignore the protests of the colony of Gibraltar and its British Governor and continue to exert its sovereignty in any way it sees fit.

  3. I find it difficult to accept that anyone can write about any very sensitive subject such as this one without having got their facts right or even visiting the place to ensure the facts collected are accurate. The smuggling which occurs now is mainly Spanish citizens trying to make money out of tobacco smuggling or drug trafficing from Ceuta to the Spanish mainland. This is to somehow overcome the difficult financial situation Spain is in. It does however NOT excuse the fact that the supposedly democratic Kingdom of Spain forgets democracy quite blatantly when attacking anything to do with the British citizens of Gibraltar in making provocative incursions into their British Territorial waters and wanting to fish where the law prohibits certain types of nets being used, or even wanting to arrest pleasure craft in waters where they do NOT have any jurisdiction over.
    Even Franco respected the international treaties and the demarcation of the two sides and sovereignty of waters in the Bay of Gibraltar.

  4. What I think London should do as soon as possible is handing back Gilbraltar to Spain, starting with the istmo and all the territories occupied illegally during the late 19th century and the 20th century.

    I would like to know which paragraph in the Utrecht Treaty says that England has sovereignty over which “territorial waters”, if the istmo, the airport and other areas are also included and so on.

    And, please, don’t call Spain ally or “fellow”. If someone is by force occupying a room in your house, do you call him/her a “ally” or a “fellow”? Don’t you feel ashamed to posses the last colony in Europe?

    If you are taking a PhD in the topic you have to demonstrate your hypothesis with a minimun of quality and ethics. When you are doing research in drug discovery and get negative results, you don’t hide them just to present your good results, this is call unethical research or better said cheating. The same is valid for your research.

    God luck and I hope I’ve got you to be a little more critic in your statemetns. Research is one thing and politics is another.

  5. By the way (and with this I want to correct an error in my previous comment). UK has no sovereignty at all over Gibraltar. Utrecht Treaty states clearly that the Gibraltar (among others) will be PROPERTY of the ENGLISH CROWN. Properties have not any right to “territorial waters” as far as I know.
    Anyway, I think it was an expensive price for Spain to pay just to get the Borbon-French candidate in the Spanish crown. The situation as it is now can last forever.

  6. It is time Britain sent a war ship with orders to shoot. Enough is enough….you can`t allow Spain to bully in this manner. These waters need to be safe and secure for the inhabitants of Gibraltar, tourists and the militay bases there. Spain could never win a military dispute with Britain. We have tried being reasonable for far too long and appeasing bullies has been shown to make things worse…as history shows.

  7. never? we will see. Spain is also tired of having these thieves down there. There are no territorial waters of Gibraltar or UK Mr. Bell, is just a property that have stolen from Spain in a civil war when spain was at its weakest.
    Give back this colony to Spain, it is nothing but shame in having a colony in modern Europe.
    Send the warships with order to shoot. Spaniards are ready. Remember what happened in Cartagena de Indias when Vernon tried to conquer it. Do you think Spain is Argentina? You are so wrong!

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