In my Gibraltar column last week – The Waters Are Troubled Enough – I wrote: "There are two disputes between Spain and Gibraltar – Britain over the Rock’s territorial waters. The historic row is that Spain insists that Gibraltar has no territorial waters other than the harbour whereas Gibraltar – Britain claim under international agreement and law three miles which could be extended to twelve. The more recent friction, which this article relates to, is due to the EU that has given Spain responsibility in environmental matters over much of the waters round the Rock.
"Hence it is understandable that the Gibraltar Government has gone hot under the collar over suggestions by the Opposition that Spain was now in the process of making a third claim. Not so – it insists: "Spain has not designated more British Gibraltar Waters for EU Environmental Protection purposes".
"In a statement to clarify the situation and leaving the historic claim aside the Government says: "The waters affected remain only those proposed by Spain in 2008, and listed by the EU Commission in its existing decision which is the subject of a legal challenge by the Gibraltar Government.""
The Gibraltar Government then went on to specify what action it and the British Government were taking and the importance of the UK bringing its own legal challenge.
Well no sooner had my column gone to press than Graham Watson, the Liberal Democrat MEP who represents the South West of England and Gibraltar in the European Parliament, broke some startling news. If you are one of those who wonder what Euro MPs do for their money then his press statement will go some way to answering that question.
Graham Watson has discovered how UK government bungling has allowed Spain to register Gibraltar’s territorial waters as a Spanish Site of Community Importance under EU environmental legislation.
His statement read: "Gibraltar and the UK were dismayed to discover recently that a Spanish application for an SCI covering the waters around the Rock had been approved by the European Commission. Graham Watson MEP tabled a parliamentary question demanding how this could have happened when the UK had already registered the area around the Rock as a UK SCI. No clear reply was received, other than that the UK had not objected to the Spanish application.
""I assumed this was an oversight on our government’s part", the MEP commented; "inexcusable but not unheard of. On further study I have discovered that in the UK’s application for an SCI, Gibraltar was positioned at longitude 5 degrees 22 minutes East of Greenwich. Yet Gibraltar is situated at 5 degrees 22 minutes West of the prime meridian. In other words the UK’s submission placed it in waters north of Algiers, which means that the Spanish application did not overlap with our SCI.""
Fair enough – mistakes especially with this British government - do happen. However this scenario begs certain questions. When the EC received Britain’s application didn’t somebody in Brussels notice the error and duly advise the Foreign Office? If they did – did the UK Government act to rectify the mistake? If they didn’t - does Britain thus have jurisdiction in environmental matters over waters north of Algiers that aren’t even in the EU? We seem to only have half they story and it appears to be a UK and EC bungle!
By the by Graham Watson’s father served in Gibraltar as a Royal Naval officer and he is a qualified marine navigator himself. He said: "The litany of UK bungling over matters regarding the Rock gets longer and longer. Which bureaucrat in the cuckoo’s nest of government policy-making is responsible? If the Spanish Armada had made such a basic error, they’d have foundered before Drake even had the opportunity to sink them. Were it not for the EU’s having abolished the death penalty, this government official might be hung, drawn and quartered for such a crass mistake!"
Steady lad, steady - I didn’t know Liberal Democrats could get so excited!
Apparently Graham Watson has asked the Foreign Secretary to endeavour to correct the matter so that no quarter be given to Spanish claims to sovereignty.
"We should never have agreed to Spain joining the EU until they renounced their claim," he adds – now he sounds like disgusted of Tunbridge Wells. Or may be Gibraltar’s seemingly most active Euro MP had his tongue firmly in cheek.
What is fact is that the Gibraltar will never be allowed to get in the way of pan-European relations. Britain and Spain share too many common interests for them to flounder on the Rock. The EC just wishes Gibraltar would float away and refuses to be drawn in to the debate or row over what it sees as old Imperial territory. The fact is that the EU was so pleased that Spain had thrown off the Franco era and embraced democracy it was never going to be blackballed by Britain or Brussels over Gibraltar and prevented from joining the European club of supposedly free nations.