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Cross-border Travel (Spain/Gibraltar)

Volume 551: debated on Monday 15 October 2012

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs to make a statement about the deteriorating situation of cross-border travel between Spain and Gibraltar.

On Tuesday 9 October and again between Friday 12 October and Sunday 14 October, significant delays occurred at the border between Gibraltar and Spain. Travellers have been delayed by between 45 minutes and six hours as a result of more rigorous checks introduced by the Spanish Guardia Civil on vehicles leaving Gibraltar. I should say to the House that as of this afternoon, the information that I have suggests that there is a less than 20-minute wait for cars and 10-minute wait for bikes at the border.

Spain has justified the more rigorous checks as being related to anti-tobacco smuggling operations. Tobacco smuggling does occur between Gibraltar and Spain: however, the Spanish authorities have not yet provided the Government of Gibraltar with evidence to explain why, in this case, increased checks were required.

There have been delays at the border many times in the past, most recently in May 2012, and this current disruption comes at a time when tensions between Gibraltar and Spain have increased because of a dispute over Spanish fishing rights in British Gibraltar territorial waters. The view of many in Gibraltar is that the delays are an attempt to increase pressure on Gibraltar to resolve that fishing dispute. Gibraltar’s Chief Minister, Fabian Picardo, has been critical of the delays, and the criticism of Spanish action has been shared by the ASCTEG, the association of Spanish workers who commute daily into Gibraltar.

Disruption to border flows has a direct impact on the prosperity and well-being of communities on both sides of the border, in particular the 7,000 mostly Spanish people who travel every day from Spain to Gibraltar and back for work. The Government’s position is that these delays are unacceptable and have no place at a border between EU partners.

We raised this issue over this weekend at a very high level with the Spanish Government. We will also be protesting formally to the local Guardia Civil. We will continue to monitor the situation closely and take whatever action is appropriate to support the free movement of people between Gibraltar and Spain.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Can he justify why the Spanish ambassador has not yet been summoned to the Foreign Office to explain why the border closures and incursions into Gibraltar waters are taking place? The entire policy by the Spanish is unacceptable. This is an EU border, not a third-world war zone. It is akin to the French closing the Spanish border through Andorra. The Spanish need to accept that the Gibraltar people have decided through self-determination to remain with Britain.

We have not called in the Spanish ambassador because, as I said in my earlier remarks, this was raised directly with the Spanish Government at a significantly higher level.

Although the House will appreciate that the Minister is doing all that he can in negotiations with the Spanish Government, will he agree with most Members of the House that the situation in Gibraltar is simply unacceptable? While people in Madrid may give assurances that the Spanish Government are acting in a way that is acceptable to the UK Government, what actually happens day to day is that the Guardia Civil under local management in Algeciras and La Línea do whatever they wish, not only on the border but in making incursions by sea into British Gibraltar territorial waters whenever they wish to do so and in a way that is deliberately designed to make life difficult for the people and Government of Gibraltar. If the Minister can assure the House that he understands that and will make it clear to the Government of Spain, we will be happy.

Where there is a genuine case for increased checks at the border because of an acknowledged need to combat smuggling or other criminal activity, that might be fair. In such a case, however, we would expect the Spanish authorities to be open with the Government of Gibraltar about those circumstances, but that has not been the case hitherto in this instance.

So far as maritime incursions are concerned, we are absolutely confident of the United Kingdom’s sovereignty over British Gibraltar territorial waters, which is why the Royal Navy challenges Guardia Civil and other Spanish state vessels whenever they make unlawful maritime incursions into British Gibraltar territorial waters. We back that up through formal diplomatic protests to the Spanish Government about all unlawful incursions. Those challenges and protests make it clear that such incursions are an unacceptable violation of British sovereignty.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Jim Dobbin) on securing this important urgent question. The Opposition continue to support the self-determination of the Gibraltan people and their right to remain under British sovereignty, as we did in government, so I welcome the Minister’s answer on that. We also welcome the fact that Chief Minister Fabian Picardo, who is in London today, has been in touch with the Government and that discussions have taken place between the Minister for Europe and the Gibraltan Chief Minister.

I agree that the delays of up to five or six hours at the border between Spain and Gibraltar are simply unacceptable, and I welcome the Minister’s discussions with the Gibraltan Chief Minister. I echo his observation that this is also of deep concern to the thousands of Spanish workers who cross the border every day to work in Gibraltar. What more can the Government do to ensure that these delays do not happen again, and that the reasons given in this and other instances by the Spanish Government are properly investigated and that evidence is produced for what many think are just excuses? Finally, what discussions has the Minister had with the Spanish Government about their decision to abandon the trilateral forum, and what pressure is he and the Foreign Secretary exerting on the Spanish Government to return to it?

I agree with the hon. Lady that the border delays end up penalising Spanish workers as much as the people of Gibraltar. The delays get in the way of sensible economic relations between Gibraltar and the neighbouring regions of Spain, and therefore interrupt what ought to be a mutually beneficial economic relationship. They harm jobs and hopes of prosperity. We shall continue to raise with the Spanish authorities at every appropriate level cases where we think that the border delays that have been imposed have not been adequately justified. The Government of Gibraltar regularly co-operate with Spain in tackling tobacco smuggling and other forms of criminal activity. That is the sort of sensible, constructive co-operation we want.

The British Government very much regret that the current Spanish Government refuse to take part in further meetings of the trilateral, which we believe well serves both Gibraltar and Spain, as well as the United Kingdom. We would like some kind of equivalent collaborative system established, but so far Spain has refused to return to the trilateral. I am grateful for what the hon. Lady said about her support for British sovereignty over Gibraltar and respecting the rights of its people. I particularly welcome her remarks, if they mark a break with the proposals for shared sovereignty and the betrayal of the people of Gibraltar that the Labour party supported when in office.

We are grateful to Ministers for their robust view on this matter. There is a strong view in Gibraltar that since the Government changed in Madrid there has been a much less obvious willingness to collaborate with the Government of Gibraltar, as well as incursions into our waters and regular blockages of the border. Will Ministers put it on the agenda for the next meeting with Madrid that the way for a civilised Government in Spain to behave, if they want to make a joint effort on the border, is to warn Gibraltar, do it together and stop this uncivilised and tribal attitude from a country that wants to be regarded as a full and civilised member of the EU?

My right hon. Friend makes a very good point about the beneficial effect of practical co-operation between the Governments of Spain and Gibraltar, a subject that is frequently on the agenda in discussions between the British and Spanish sides. It is fair to say that although the new Spanish Government have introduced a policy towards the trilateral which we have found unwelcome—they know that that is our attitude towards their policy—the Prime Minister of Spain has also made it clear publicly that he does not want the argument about Gibraltar to get in the way of a fruitful bilateral relationship between Spain and the United Kingdom. I hope very much that we can get back to the sort of practical, local co-operation that my right hon. Friend referred to and wants to see in future.

On Friday—the day that the EU was awarded the Nobel peace prize—there was a five-hour queue on the Gibraltar-Spain border, which is an EU border. Will the Minister call in the Spanish ambassador each and every day that there is a delay of five hours on the border between Gibraltar and Spain, and will he keep the ambassador waiting for five hours?

What I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that wherever we have evidence that border delays are being imposed without good reason, we will take that up with the Spanish authorities at the appropriate level. That may sometimes be at the local, operational level; it may sometimes, as in the most recent case, need to be at a senior level, with the Spanish Government in Madrid.

I welcome the strong statement by the Minister today and the equally strong statement from the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) on the Opposition Front Bench about Gibraltar’s sovereignty. The Minister will know that tobacco smuggling regularly occurs—and to a much greater extent than between Gibraltar and Spain—across the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland—

North and south. Yet despite that, there have never been such delays or such an overreaction by the services in Northern Ireland in relation to our trade and the impact on our trade. I hope that the Minister will send the strongest possible signal and, indeed, that he will ask our Prime Minister to represent fairly the people of Gibraltar to the Spanish Prime Minister and tell him to get his hands off this Rock. It’s not going their way.

The UK Government, from the Prime Minister down, could not have been clearer to our friends and partners in Spain that although we want a good bilateral relationship with them, we will not, and we shall never, agree to any transfer of sovereignty over Gibraltar unless that were the wish of the people of Gibraltar, nor would we enter into any process of sovereignty talks and negotiations unless the people of Gibraltar were content with that.

I wish the Minister well. I negotiated the trilateral agreement, and for a few years we had a bit of peace and quiet. I am sorry that it is all going wrong for him; Gibraltar is a nightmare for anybody in his job. However, the House does not help the Minister or the people of Gibraltar with patronising remarks about civilised behaviour and the rest of it. We need to cool things down. The queues are unacceptable, but jaw-jaw is better than queue-queue. I wish the Minister well as he tries to get this back under control.

I am always willing to welcome good wishes, particularly in my job, even if they are from the right hon. Gentleman. However, I would disagree with him profoundly in one respect: when he described Gibraltar as a “nightmare”. I do not think Gibraltar is a nightmare; I think Gibraltar is a thriving and now pretty prosperous community, with an entrepreneurial people who want good relations with their neighbours across the border in Spain, but who also want their democratic rights respected and their wish to remain British respected too.