Just when the British Government hoped things couldn’t have got any worse – they have. London is already embroiled in the financial crisis, the row over retired bankers pay-offs and pensions, the privatisation of the Post Office and now Gibraltar’s territorial water comes in to the frame. This is not a spat between London and the Rock but between the UK, Spain and also the EU.
The basis by which Gibraltar is British are the terms laid out in the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713. Nearly 300 years on since its signing it has more holes in it than my old string vest. None-the-less without any more recent agreement that is all we have.
Now Spain has always argued that the treaty sets Gibraltar’s limits purely on the land occupied and that has been exceeded with the pushing of the border closer to La Línea. When it comes to Gibraltar’s waters matters become very choppy indeed.
The Spanish view is that Gibraltar has control of its harbour and nothing else. Hence waters of the bay and the Straits are its. However under international law Gibraltar has a three mile limit plus the median line in the bay and Britain could if it wanted claim 12 miles where that is geographically possible.
Now it emerges that in an EU directive related to environmental matters Spain has claimed responsibility for the majority of the waters surrounding the Rock and Brussels has agreed. The directive aims to protect natural habitats in the Mediterranean and Member States have since 1992 included a listing of the areas that they wish to protect. The United Kingdom had included “Rock of Gibraltar” and “Southern Waters of Gibraltar” as part of the listing of its own sites.
Spain has taken advantage of the updating of the 1992 directive to introduce a new protected area covering all the waters of Gibraltar as if they were Spanish. It was in December that the Andalucía government, at the request of the Spanish Foreign Ministry, included a new “Spanish” conservation area in the directive. The area, which Spain has called “Eastern Straits”, encompasses the same geographical area as the United Kingdom’s “Southern Waters of Gibraltar” and is about five times larger. The Spanish Government has made it clear that this includes all the waters around Gibraltar.
Spain now has EU legal obligations and responsibilities over Gibraltar waters in relation to nature protection. That includes the need to undertake assessments and monitor these areas for wildlife, threats, and other activities with environmental implications. It would follow therefore that Spain has the right to enter Gibraltar’s waters at any time to undertake those tasks.
If the situation wasn’t so serious it would be amusing that it was the Gibraltar Ornithological and Natural History Society that sounded the alarm. They were soon joined by the GSLP/Liberal Opposition and the non-elected PDP. It was only later that the Foreign & Commonwealth Office got in on the act caught like startled rabbits in the spotlight of this fiasco.
Apparently now the communications lines between London, Gibraltar and Brussels are glowing red hot as they try to sort out the shambles that has implications for the Rock’s very sovereignty. However given that the British Government didn’t know the size of the toxic debt it was inheriting when it nationalized certain banks or the terms of the pay-offs of failed directors it is hardly surprising that it wasn’t aware that the EU had given Spain responsibility for Gibraltar’s waters. A stormy sea lies ahead!