Friday, October 18, 2013

Why Britain has Sent an Armada to Spain ???

Britain and Spain have been in a daily war of words for the past few months now over the outpost of Gibraltar, with the European Commission called in to investigate Spain's recent border crackdown that is punishing British tourists with excessive fees. What looked like a minor fishing dispute now has Spain questioning Britain's territorial control over Gibraltar -- and Britain dispatching a fleet of ships to defend it.

The unusual tensions could escalate beyond heated rhetoric. The European Commission can adjudicate the legal issues and ignore political posturing, but Argentina is hatching plans to partner with Spain to question British sovereignty over the Falkland Islands and Gibraltar and bring a joint case for sovereignty before the UN International Court of Justice. It is likely more of an attempt at political theatre to distract their citizens from domestic problems than a serious scheme to wrest control of British territories. A red flag went up in February, 2012 when Spain's new conservative government, led by Mariano Rajoy, called on the British authorities to agree to talks on Gibraltar's sovereignty.

Then in May, 2012 there was a clash between police boats from the two sides over fishing rights in the waters around Gibraltar. In August, Spain warned that it will defend its fishermen in the contested waters. By November, Britain summoned the Spanish ambassador to London to complain about ''serious incursions'' in the waters off Gibraltar. Then in July of this year simmering tensions were quickly reignited when Gibraltar dropped 70 ''reef-building'' concrete blocks off the western end of its airport runway citing the belief that the Spanish have overfished the waters, causing damage to the marine ecosystem. Yet Spain believes that the law of the sea gives its fishermen the right to fish in Mediterranean waters with no restrictions.

On August 4, Spain made a defiant move that incensed Britain. The Spanish conceived of new border controls that included more checks and a $67 fee for each vehicle that entered or left Spain. Since numerous British citizens are on August holiday and love to visit Spanish beaches, the border controls were seen as unfair. Spain claimed it imposed the measures to counter high rates of smuggling and money-laundering in Gibraltar. Britain said the border regulations violated European Union law regarding ''right of free movement.'' Gibraltar chief minister, Fabian Picardo, told British reporters on August 17 that ''hell will freeze over before the government of Gibraltar moves any of those blocks.''  The next day, hell really broke loose!

The Spanish Armada  #2
Between 40 and 50 vessels, mostly fishing boats, sailed near Gibraltar's artificial reef to protest the crackdown on fishing. This demonstration occurred the same day that a handful of British warships, led by the HMS Westminister ( below ), arrived. The warships quickly set up a cordon and corralled the Spanish ''armada'' and pushed them away from the reef area and maintained the ships were here for a planned exercise. Spain viewed the action as a provocative show of force. The next day (Aug 19th), the European Commission inserted itself into the dispute, promising to send a team to investigate the border measures and ordering Spain not to charge people fees to cross its borders.

By the end of August, British Prime Minister, David Cameron met Fabian Picardo in Downing Street to declare to defend Gibraltar in the ongoing dispute, saying Britain ''would always stand up for the territory and its people.'' That afternoon, Spanish police unions organised a demonstration at the border in protest at the verbal abuse and physical abuse inflicted on Guardia Civil officers by angry commuters held in long queues, up to 8 hours, to cross into Spain. Police unions called on the Spanish government to ''defend their interests and support them in their work. Staff from the police and the Guardia Civil were only acting in accordance with the law.''  Cameron countered with calling the checks ''disproportionate and politically motivated.''  Mr Picardo thanked the Prime Minister and the Foreign Sceretary, Willian Hague, for their support.

HMS  Westminster off of Gibraltar
UPDATE: Yesterday, Tory MP David Morris, called for a new law on British waters around the territory that would impose a formal three-mile boundary of the territorial waters around Gibraltar. He said that international law dictated claims for territorial waters could extend for up to 12 miles. His proposal for a new Gibraltar Maritime Protection Bill came after Spain had warned that it is ready to impose a new border tax, close its airspace to planes using the territory's airport and investigate the affairs of Gibraltarians with Spanish economic interests.

The Way I See It.....what started as a manageable mini-crisis over fishing rights has ballooned into a multinational dispute over customs and border policy, territorial rights, sovereignty, law of the sea, environmentalism and international security. For now, Britain, Spain and Gibraltar must sort through the issues and determine whether the disagreements are of a legal or political nature. Legal issues can be mediated by intergovernmental organizations. Political issues can be mitigated by simply abandoning nationalistic rhetoric. In the meantime, the English Armada stays put.

Sovereignty regarding Gibraltar is pretty much no-negotiable. Britain is unlikely to change its interpretation of the original Treaty of Utrecht signed in 1713. Spain has limited claims on what goes on inside Gibraltar, and as the language of the treaty clearly states, it ceded the territory to Britain ''in perpetuity.'' The Strait of Gibraltar is a key strategic shipping lane and obvious maritime chock point. It is paramount for these staunch allies to ensure that this diplomatic row does not evolve into something that could endanger maritime commerce in the Mediterranean Sea. As long as cooler heads prevail in the coming weeks, these disputes can be navigated sufficiently to deescalate tensions.

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