Escalating war of words over Gibraltar

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   By a Newsnet reporter

The dispute between the UK and Spain over the Spanish imposition of border checks at the frontier with Gibraltar has escalated, with the UK government planning unprecedented legal action against the Spanish government.

According to a Downing St spokesperson, the Foreign Office is now drawing up plans for legal action after Spain imposed what have been described as “politically motivated and disproportionate” checks on travellers crossing into Spain from Gibraltar.

The threat of legal action came after Spain imposed strict border checks causing long queues at the frontier, and said it was considering levying a 50€ charge (approximately £43) on travellers crossing into Spain.

The Prime Minister is reportedly “disappointed” that the border checks have remained in place, despite a frank telephone conversation over the weekend between Mr Cameron and his Spanish counterpart Mariano Rajoy.

A spokesperson for Number 10 said:

“The prime minister is disappointed by the failure of the Spanish to remove the additional border checks this weekend and we are now considering what legal action is open to us,” he said.

“This would be an unprecedented step and so we would want to make [any decision] carefully.

“If we go down this route we will certainly press the EU to pursue this as a matter of urgency.  They need to de-escalate this issue by the removal of border checks.  We feel that these delays are politically motivated and disproportionate.  That would be illegal under EU law and contrary to the right of free movement.”

Jonathan Todd, a spokesperson for the European Commission, confirmed that EU officials would go to Gibraltar next month, saying: “They will be there to verify compliance with EU rules on frontier controls.”

However the Spanish government has signalled that it will not back down, with a spokesperson for the Spanish Foreign Office saying that the checks are legal and Spain had the right to carry them out in order to crack down on smuggling.  Because of lower alcohol and tobacco duties in Gibraltar, there is a thriving trade in tobacco smuggling across the border.

The Spanish Foreign Office spokesperson said:

“We insist that these checks are legal, proportionate and we are obliged to carry them out under the Schengen agreement.”

The Spanish government also reminded the UK that the United Nations has not recognised the right to self-determination of Gibraltar, and highlighted that there exist a number of UN resolutions which support Spain’s right to “territorial integrity”. 
Critics within Spain have alleged that Mr Rajoy’s government has manufactured the crisis in order to divert attention from his government’s domestic problems.  Recently Mr Rajoy and other leading members of the ruling Partido Popular were accused of involvement in corruption.

The national daily El País has published handwritten “secret ledgers” allegedly kept by former PP treasurer Luis Bárcenas Gutiérrez, who is currently on remand in prison awaiting trial for corruption offences.  El País alleged that Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, and María Dolores de Cospedal, the Secretary-General of the Partido Popular, received undeclared money paid into the party’s slush fund by construction companies.

Mr Rajoy’s government is also beset with Spain’s economic crisis, which has seen unemployment rocket to over 27%, and youth unemployment reach over 50%.  Meanwhile the Catalan crisis rumbles on, and it appears increasingly likely that the Catalans will opt for independence if they are allowed to vote in a referendum.

On Monday Royal Navy warships set sail for the Mediterranean to participate in a “routine” naval exercise.  The ships are expected to dock in Gibraltar within the week.  The deployment has been downplayed by both the UK and Spanish governments, but highlights the deepening tensions between London and Madrid.