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Volume 567: debated on Monday 2 September 2013

Since 26 July, attempts by the Spanish Government to exert pressure on Gibraltar and its people have increased significantly. Disproportionate and time-consuming checks have been introduced at the Gibraltar/Spain border, leading to delays of up to seven hours. Other concerning actions have occurred, such as ambulances being searched and prohibitions placed on the transport of sand and materials used to manufacture concrete across the border. The Government of Spain have in addition publicly made a series of threats of further action which would harm Gibraltar’s interests. In parallel, Spanish state vessels have continued to make multiple illegal incursions into British Gibraltar territorial waters (BGTW), a situation which has been ongoing since April 2012.

These actions and threats are wholly unacceptable. The impact of the border delays has been felt most severely by local citizens, both Gibraltarians and the thousands of Spanish commuters who benefit from employment in Gibraltar. As well as having to endure long delays in hot weather, people crossing the border have reported aggressive behaviour by the teams of guardia civil officers brought from other parts of Spain to conduct the enhanced checks. There have been disturbing reports of Gibraltar-licensed cars being burnt or otherwise vandalised in Spain. The ban on importing certain materials is having an impact on infrastructure projects and the reduction in the number of people able to cross the border has reduced retail sales, having a negative impact on Gibraltar’s economic prosperity.

These measures are disproportionate and obviously politically motivated, having been introduced immediately after the lawful creation by the Government of Gibraltar of an artificial reef in BGTW. They are also unlawful under EU law: the creation of the reef was legal and is part of the Government of Gibraltar’s long-term marine environmental management plan designed to improve fish stocks and regenerate habitat. The use of inert concrete blocks to create artificial reefs is consistent with international best practice and with the Government of Spain’s own approach to artificial reefs.

The heightened rhetoric from the Spanish Foreign Minister is also concerning. It is clearly intimidating for the people of Gibraltar and indicates that there may be worse to come from the Spanish Government before we see an improvement in the situation.

The Government have responded to these developments robustly and in concert with the Government of Gibraltar. We summoned the Spanish Ambassador on 2 August. Our Ministers have protested in the strongest terms to their counterparts, including the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary, emphasising that Britain will not stand by in the face of continued hostility and stands shoulder to shoulder with the people of Gibraltar.

We have asked that the European Commission urgently sends a monitoring mission to the border to investigate the delays, and following the Prime Minister’s call, we welcome President Barroso’s confirmation that a mission will be sent this month. In partnership with the Government of Gibraltar, we are continuing to collect evidence of the disproportionate unlawful border measures, and will share this with the European Commission before their monitoring mission arrives. We are also keeping under review the option of taking direct legal action against the Spanish Government, via a complaint to the European Court of Justice.

Despite these actions, the border delays, incursions and threatening rhetoric continue. The Government’s aim is to de-escalate the tension, so that Gibraltarians can go about their business unhampered and free from intimidation. At the same time, we will continue to protect the rights and interests of Gibraltar and the United Kingdom.

On 7 August the Foreign Secretary again confirmed to the Spanish Government our commitment to a diplomatic solution, repeating the offer made in April 2012 for ad hoc talks involving all relevant parties while remaining strongly committed to the Trilateral Forum of Dialogue between the UK, Gibraltar and Spain.

We will continue to press the Spanish Government to de-escalate the situation and to remove the additional checks at the border. We will also continue to work very closely with the Government of Gibraltar. On 28-30 August, Chief Minister Picardo visited London for meetings with the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary.

We will continue to respect the wishes of the people of Gibraltar, and will take whatever action is necessary to safeguard Gibraltar, its people and its economy.