The sea mist over the waters dispute

By David Eade
Today I am going to address the waters issue because it appears to me a certain politician is using the sea fog to hide what is going on.

Let us start at the beginning with the Spanish position. As far as Madrid is concerned under the Treaty of Utrecht Gibraltar was given no waters although it recognises the Rock’s jurisdiction over the harbour areas. Hence it follows that for Spain a Guardia Civil patrol or naval vessel is at liberty to approach right up to the Rock, because they are Spanish waters.

We then have the added complication, because of the negligence of the last British Labour Government, by which the EU recognises Spain as having responsibility for Gibraltar’s waters in environmental matters. I am not a lawyer but it would strike me that if this is the case the EU would give the green light to a Spanish environmental vessel undertaking any patrols or action in the Rock’s waters it deemed necessary.

So Spain has been added a major bonus. Not only does it claim all the waters around Gibraltar but the EU has granted it environmental guardianship too.

Britain claims for Gibraltar under international law a three mile limit. It could be extended to 12 miles where distance allows but the UK government has not followed that course and I believe it never will.

London is happy to stress its rights over Gibraltar’s waters and when Spain sends in a Guardia Civil or Naval vessel will send off a note of protest which I am sure is shoved in a shoe box with all the others. Madrid knows that the British Government is not going to take any action to defend the waters other than sending out a RGP high speed patrol boat to ask the Spaniards to go away.

Gibraltar is not the Falklands. Margaret Thatcher didn’t send a task force half way across the world because Argentinean forces had had the temerity to invade a strip of land largely inhabited by sheep. The defending of kith and kin made nice headlines but the fact is the Falkland Islanders would now be speaking Spanish if it wasn’t for the fact that under the surrounding seas are huge oil and mineral reserves. If Gibraltar was sitting on an oil well London’s attitude would be very different.

Last week the British Secretary of State for Defence, Dr Liam Fox, visited Gibraltar. He isn’t a diplomat, he’s the man who would bomb you without a blink of an eyelid if it was in Britain’s interests, which of course include oil as is the case in Libya.

This is what he said on the waters issue: “Spanish incursions into our territorial waters are neither justified nor tolerable.” He added the way to handle it was “to persuade our colleagues in Spain that this sort of behaviour at the level at which it has been occurring is not acceptable.” Then came the key words: “This should be sorted out at a political level and there is no point in raising unnecessarily the political temperature over it.”

Let me repeat that phrase: “This should be sorted out at a political level and there is no point in raising unnecessarily the political temperature over it.”

That in a nutshell is London’s attitude to the waters dispute, we will talk about it but we are never going to send a gunboat!

Now for Gibraltarians this of course has an entirely different aspect. They are the Rock’s waters and no Gibraltarian wants to see the Guardia Civil or Spanish Navy sailing inside the three-mile limit.

In 2009 the chief minister told parliament that the Royal Gibraltar Police were going to be given patrol vessels that could match those of the Guardia Civil. Of course that never happened nor do I suspect will it ever.

London is very happy for the RGP to race out in their dinghies with or without the Royal Navy in support. However the British Government has no intention of starting a shooting war on the waters issue and must be horrified that Caruana intended to beef up the RGP response as it probably is now over his plans for a navy and air force disguised as a border agency.

The Spanish attitude on the waters issue is as clear as can be. Thanks to Dr Fox we now know where Britain stands. What we do not know is what is going on in Gibraltar. Did London tell the chief minister he couldn’t deploy his own RGP gunboats and to save his cash? What has been the response to his navy and air force plan? Has he, as has been suggested to me by Spanish sources, struck a deal on the waters issue but does not want to announce it till after the election? What is clear is the chief minister is happy to let the sea mist cloud his plans for the RGP. However, on an issue of such fundamental importance to Gibraltarians, it is time he stood up and told the truth.