12 Aug 2013

UK ‘considers legal action’ against Spain over Gibraltar

Britain and Spain are locked in a dispute over Gibraltar that that has compounded tensions dating back to 1704. But what is fueling Britain’s control issues over its overseas territory?

They are two historical European powerhouses whose legacy was shaped by their command of merchant navies that would sail and conquer regions all over the world.

Now Britain and Spain have resurrected their three-centuries-old dispute over Gibraltar, a 2.6 square mile peninsula that is home to no more than 40,000 people.

At first glance, the problems seem purely practical: Spain is objecting to the construction of an artificial reef designed to give marine wildlife an environment to breed and colonise, as well as boost tourism. It believes this reef will affect the catch of its fishermen and further cripple the country’s beleaguered economy.

Under normal circumstances this dispute would be resolvable without the intervention of Downing Street. But this is the latest in a myriad of tensions over the last nine months.

Read more: why are we still arguing about Gibraltar?

In February, a Spanish warship entered British water for 20 minutes. It was confronted by the Royal Navy and asked to leave. At the end of July, tourists endured three days of delays at the border as the Spanish authorities increased vehicle searches.

Now Madrid has ramped up border checks on vehicles entering Spain, while its foreign minister threatened to impose an entry fee of £43 on cars entering the country from Gibraltar.

It is the final straw. Downing Street is now mooting legal action through the European Union. And its threat has been underscored by coincidental timing that has seen three Royal Navy warships set sail for the Mediterranean for training deployment.

Spain meanwhile has said it is considering taking the dispute to the UN Security Council, where it could seek the support of Argentina.

Debates over British overseas territory

The dispute is thought to be symptomatic of a wider mood of territorialism. Britain retains sovereignty over 14 territories outside the British Isles. But disputes over ownership remain.

Gibraltar is claimed by Spain. The Falkland Islands and South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands are claimed by Argentina. Earlier this year Falkland islanders expressed their wish to remain British nearly unanimously in a referendum.

But a meeting of the UN special committee on decolonisation, held in New York just three months later, saw member states adopt a resolution in favour of Argentina’s call for bilateral sovereignty negotiations with Britain.

The British Indian Ocean Territory is claimed by Mauritius and Seychelles, while the British Antarctic Territory is subject to overlapping claims by Argentina and Chile.

Last December the Foreign Office declared that a tract of hitherto unnamed land in Antarctica, about twice the size of the UK, was to be named Queen Elizabeth Land, prompting complaints from Argentina.

Expect this latest summer spat between Britain and Spain to be just as fiercely contested.