In recent weeks and months I have written numerous articles on the row between Spain and Britain-Gibraltar over the Rock’s waters. Spain maintains that Gibraltar has no territorial waters except those of its harbour whilst Britain claims for Gibraltar the international accepted three-mile limit whilst Gibraltarians insist that under the same law the Rock is entitled to 12 miles. These already muddy waters have been clouded further by the EU giving Spain jurisdiction over much of Gibraltar’s waters in environmental matters. This occurred because of a cock-up in Whitehall when Britain claimed the seas off Algeria in error.
Now on Monday evening four Guardia Civil were arrested in Gibraltar and held for two hours after their patrol boat pursued a suspected drug trafficker into the waters of the Rock. The zodiac launch had first been spotted in the Strait and in the chase it entered Gibraltar’s territorial waters. Although these are not recognised by Spain it is usual for the Guardia Civil to liaise with the Royal Gibraltar Police in such instances and for the RGP to take up the chase.
It would appear that the two drug traffickers entered Gibraltar’s port to seek refuge. They were duly arrested by the RGP and taken along with the crew of the Guardia Civil patrol boat to be questioned. Matters then switched to a political level with Spain’s Minister for the Interior, Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, making a telephone call to the chief minister, Peter Caruana, to apologise over the “incorrect action” of the agents. Rubalcaba was especially anxious to dissociate the action of the Guardia Civil from any political motive. The chief minister is reported to have accepted the Spanish minister’s assurances and apology especially given the tension in the Rock’s waters in recent weeks between the Guardia Civil and the RGP plus the Royal Navy.
But why did Rubalcaba apologise? As Spain does not recognise Gibraltar’s jurisdiction over those waters surely he should have screamed and shouted that his officers had been detained illegally and demand an apology along with their release.
Britain recently politely requested the Spanish Government to stop its Guardia Civil and naval patrols from entering Gibraltar’s waters. This polite request was probably accompanied by the message that if they continued then Britain and Gibraltar would pull out of the tripartite forum and the Córdoba Agreement.
Had they done so it would have left Spain’s policy on Gibraltar in tatters. The socialist government of Zapatero has invested much time and effort in pursuing a policy of engagement and co-operation in order to break down the barriers with the Rock so that in the medium to long term some accord on sovereignty could be secured. To have that policy tossed aside now would leave the Spanish government open to derision in Spain – and especially from the Partido Popular opposition. It would have also opened up a rift with Britain just as Spain takes over the EU presidency and needs the support of all member nations.
If the Spanish press reports are correct and Rubalcaba both apologised for the actions of the Guardia Civil officers then also stressed it had no political implications – he blinked. And in the game of diplomatic brinkmanship – if you blink – you’ve lost.