By the Blouin News Politics staff

U.K.-Spain relations rocked after Gibraltar incursion

by in Europe.

The Rock of Gibraltar. Getty Images

The Rock of Gibraltar: British owned, but claimed by Spain. Getty Images

The diplomatic row between Spain and the U.K. over Gibraltar has flared anew. Nicknamed “the Rock,” 2.3-square mile Gibraltar has been an outpost of the British Commonwealth on the southern coast of Spain since 1713—much to Madrid’s chagrin. Over the weekend, Spain violated British Gibraltar Territorial Waters, sparking a diplomatic outcry from British and Gibraltar officials. Then on Wednesday, Britain’s Minister for Europe David Lidington sent a letter to his Spanish counterpart reiterating London’s indignation over the incident.

Normally there is “constant cooperation between Gibraltar’s patrols and the Spanish customs and Civil Guard,” according to a Gibraltar government spokesman. But this time, vessels and a helicopter of Spain’s anti-narcotics squad pursued suspected drug smugglers into Gibraltar waters and airspace, without notifying British or Gibraltar local authorities. The ships were subsequently “escorted” out of Gibraltar waters by the British Royal Navy. London was outraged, calling Spain’s actions “completely unacceptable and unlawful.

Madrid, on the other hand, responded that “there was no incident, as Spain recognizes those waters as Spanish.” Spain officially states that restoring its sovereignty over Gibraltar is “a fundamental objective” for Spanish foreign policy. Last week, Spain’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs detailed that a small part of its expanding budget will be earmarked to prepare briefings, analysis, and proposals on Gibraltar, an initiative that was put in place last year and will continue next year. According to the budget plan, the ministry is expected to produce 45 such Gibraltar-related studies during 2015 (instead of 40 as originally planned), and 45 in 2016.

Unsurprisingly, London and Gibraltar also suspect sinister motives behind Spain’s new border crossing systems it installed on its boundary with the Rock in late July. Gibraltar MEP (Member of European Parliament) Ashley Fox said that he had already received a large number of complaints about long delays from tourists, local residents, and cross border workers. “The height of summer is simply not the time to start testing new systems but not informing anybody just proves that these delays are unwarranted, unjust and politically motivated,” he stressed. “The irony is that it is not just inconveniencing Gibraltarians and their local economy; it is also causing huge problems for the thousands of Spanish who work in Gibraltar and have to pass through the border twice a day. Border problems like this are fast becoming an annual event and enough is enough,” Fox stated.

Referring to Spain’s new border systems, Gibraltar’s Deputy Chief Minister Dr. Joseph Garcia said “The effects of these seem to be designed to cause as much disruption as possible.” If that is indeed Spain’s design, it is working. Tourist expenditure in Gibraltar sank from over $436 million in 2011 to about $262 million in 2014. Factors including a weak Euro against the Sterling pound and lower gasoline prices played some part, but so did “the impact of frontier delays on cross-border traffic,” according to the 2014 Tourist Survey Report.

For Madrid, making noise over Gibraltar is a useful nationalistic distraction from Spain’s ongoing economic woes. But as Madrid stifles Catalonia’s calls for independence, its claim of rightful ownership of British-populated Gibraltar reeks of hypocrisy.

Still, however upset Britain and Gibraltar are, they are not burning bridges with Spain — Minister Lidington’s letter also called for “increased cooperation” from Spain with the Rock in combating crime. Just don’t count on Britain handing over Gibraltar to Spain anytime soon, if ever.