Skip to main content

Select Committee on Foreign Affairs

Volume 583: debated on Thursday 3 July 2014

Select Committee statement

I hope it is not necessary for me to repeat what I said prior to the delivery of the previous statement. I think everybody who is present now was present then. The same procedure applies to the second statement, which is heard for up to 10 minutes without interruption, following which there is an opportunity for brief questions to the Chair of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, whom I now invite to deliver his statement.

When problems emerged in Gibraltar last summer, with seven-hour-long delays to cross the border, the Foreign Affairs Committee took a strong interest in the situation and in what the Government were doing, and were going to do, in response. On Tuesday, the Committee published its report, “Gibraltar: Time to get off the fence”. We concluded that the behaviour of Spain towards Gibraltar is unacceptable. A NATO and EU ally is, as a matter of deliberate policy, impacting the economy and functioning of a British overseas territory. In our opinion, it is time for the Government to take a tougher line.

The dispute has a 300-year-long history. However, in the past three years, the Partido Popular Government in Spain have taken a more hard-line approach to the dispute. They have significantly increased pressure on Gibraltar and its people, and Gibraltarians have suffered. They have suffered: the deliberately imposed border delays; aggressive maritime incursions; calculated pressure at the EU and the UN; and inflammatory rhetoric from Spanish Ministers about Gibraltar’s sovereignty and its economic affairs.

We acknowledge that Spain’s actions have placed the UK Government in a difficult position. They have a strong bilateral relationship with Spain that is in the interests of all British citizens, including the 1 million Britons who live in Spain. However, the Government also have responsibilities towards Gibraltar and cannot ignore actions by Spain that are intended to make the lives of Gibraltarians more difficult.

First, we regret that talks including all three partners—Spain, the UK and Gibraltar—have been suspended, and we ask the Government to set out what offer they have made to Spain in connection with these talks and how they intend to restart them.

We are deeply concerned about the dramatic increase in maritime incursions in British Gibraltarian territorial waters and the hostile tactics of some of the vessels that conduct them. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office rightly protests about each incursion, but we were disappointed to find that it sometimes lodges diplomatic protests weeks after the event, robbing them of all force. This gives the wrong impression to Spain about how seriously the UK takes this issue. We recommend that protests are lodged within seven days.

We have no doubt that delays imposed by Spain at the border with Gibraltar are politically motivated, and that the border is being used as a means of coercion. The Government should state publicly that they will take legal action against Spain in the European Court if there is little improvement at the border in the next six months.

The Committee considered the possibility of Gibraltar joining Schengen, while the UK remains outside. Although we saw the merit in this idea and the impact it would have, we suspect that the legal and economic implications could be considerable.

Spain continues to use international institutions as a means of applying pressure on Gibraltar. Gibraltar remains on the UN list of non-self-governing territories, despite repeated UK Government attempts to de-list it. Only a few weeks ago, Spanish MEPs in the European Parliament were trying to limit Gibraltar’s aviation rights. Spain also continues to refuse to allow direct military movements between Gibraltar and Spain, even among its NATO partners. As a result of this, Gibraltar feels it is under siege.

The Government’s laudable attempts to de-escalate the dispute have not worked. They were right to try diplomacy, but they must now take a more robust approach, as long as this is agreed with the Government of Gibraltar. We recommend that the Government take some immediate actions now, including: more prompt diplomatic protests against incursions and border delays, and summoning the ambassador; increased efforts at the EU and UN on Gibraltar’s behalf; renewed effort to establish trilateral talks that are currently not taking place; and withholding UK support for Spain’s international goals, such as its aspiration to membership of the UN Security Council, unless its attitude toward Gibraltar changes. As for more serious measures, we further recommend that the Government be more robust in their defence of the territorial waters around Gibraltar, and we have asked them to report back on how they intend to do that.

Finally, we recommend that if those measures do not improve the situation within six months, the UK should take Spain to court for infringement of EU obligations at the border. I commend the report to the House.

I congratulate the Committee and its Chairman on a timely, well-balanced report, and look forward to a wider debate about it.

The report underlines the concern that is felt about the fact that no Minister from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office visited Gibraltar between 2011 and 2014. What reassurances has the Committee received that that is now a priority for the FCO and, indeed, for other Departments?

The Committee rightly expresses concern about the mixed message that has been sent by the delay in the delivery of protests about incursions into British Gibraltarian territorial waters, which it says—quite rightly—gives an impression of “going through the motions”. The Committee suggests a much tighter timetable. When does the right hon. Gentleman intend to seek a progress report from the Department on the implementation of that?

On 27 November last year, I said in the House:

“it is vital that the Spanish Government today hear a united statement from the House that such provocative and unlawful acts are not acceptable to this Parliament or to the British people. They cannot be ignored.”—[Official Report, 27 November 2013; Vol. 571, c. 263.]

Does the right hon. Gentleman think that the Foreign Office has heard that message?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his support for the report, and for his comments. The report was agreed unanimously, and it has all-party support.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about visits by Ministers. I think, to be fair to the Government, that the Minister for Europe has been to Gibraltar twice during the current Parliament. The Minister for the Armed Forces went there in the autumn of last year, and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury was there earlier this year. I think that there has been a sustained level of visits, but I take the right hon. Gentleman’s points on board. Of course, there can never be enough visits of this kind.

As for the timetable for incursions, it is worth noting that the Spanish ambassador has been called into the Foreign Office—I think—six times since the escalation of this incident, and that only the Syrian ambassador has been called in more frequently. We none the less recommend that the criteria for calling in the ambassadors be reviewed in order to emphasise the impact, the significance and the importance of the incidents, while also taking account of the fact that if they are called in too often, the impact is sometimes devalued. There must be a balance.

The right hon. Gentleman asked how we expect the situation to develop. As I said, we recommend that if there are no improvements, action should begin in the European Court within six months. I think that that provides a suitable window allowing the Spanish Government to improve the situation.

I thank my right hon. Friend for leading the inquiry conducted by the Foreign Affairs Committee, on which I am proud to serve.

This is a timely and an absolutely necessary report. We have seen, over a long period, shameful and disgraceful behaviour on the part of a so-called NATO and EU ally, Spain, against the people of Gibraltar. I hope that my right hon. Friend and all other Members agree that it is time for much more robust action by our own Foreign and Commonwealth Office to deal with the issue.

The report refers to high-profile visits. Leaving ministerial visits aside, I can tell the House that it was on 10 May 1954 that the Queen of Gibraltar, our own Head of State, visited the Rock. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is time Her Majesty was advised that it would be timely for her to visit the people of Gibraltar?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the consistent support he gave me throughout the report’s preparation. He will be aware that the convention in this House is not to bring the royal family into debates of this kind. None the less, we recommend that a high-level visit take place, and I am sure that will have been noted in the Foreign Office.

I thank the Chairman of the Committee for today’s presentation. He has worked very hard on the report and the Committee has come up with some robust recommendations, which I hope the Government will listen to. Why have the Spanish Government escalated the situation to almost crisis-level and put good relations with one of their most important allies at risk? Are the Spanish Government trying to take attention away from the serious economic circumstances in Spain?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question and for the support she has given me in the report’s preparation. All the evidence we received suggested that this was triggered by the Government who took office in Spain in 2011. Spain was in a dire economic situation. Various scandals were going on in the Spanish Government. The evidence we received was that this was an attempt to distract attention from their own domestic policies. Leaders in other countries around the world have on occasion taken similar action.

I commend my right hon. Friend for his robust report, which clearly sets out how objectionable it is for a supposed ally to treat the people of Gibraltar in such a way. Gatwick airport in my constituency is a major link to the airport in Gibraltar. I encourage the Foreign Affairs Committee to continue to be robust on that issue as well, so that it has is no effect on trade. As a member of the European Scrutiny Committee, I know that it would be interested in pursuing these issues, too.

Indeed. I understand that the European Scrutiny Committee is examining EU-Ukraine aviation rights. We will be watching with interest the answers to the questions that my hon. Friend has posed. The Spanish Government are using aviation rights as one of their lines of attack. Limiting aviation access to Gibraltar airport will have quite a profound effect on the economy. The Foreign Office is robustly resisting that and I understand that so far it has been successful, but it must persevere and be diligent in protecting aviation rights.

The Chairman of the Committee has produced, with the rest of us on the Committee, an important and valuable report. One issue needs to be highlighted: the Partido Popular Government are against the policies of their predecessors, who negotiated the Cordoba agreement with the Labour Government. Things were improving. That was working well. Many people in Spain disagree with the current Spanish Government’s approach, particularly workers in La Línea and other Spanish citizens, who are going to work in Gibraltar every day. It is their work and their jobs that are being disrupted. Therefore, there are potential allies in this debate. The Chairman did not mention that Spain itself has two enclaves on the north African coast—Ceuta and Melilla. Could not the Foreign Office consider upping the ante on those issues and improving relations even more with Morocco to make it clear to Spain that there is a level of hypocrisy in its attitude to Gibraltar?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support for the report, and for the work he has put into producing it. He is right to talk about the local Spanish community just over the border with Gibraltar. I think I am right in saying that he has engaged with the trade unions in the area. It is one of the more puzzling aspects of Spain’s behaviour that it is damaging not only Gibraltar’s economy but the economy of southern Spain. He makes a very strong point about Ceuta and Melilla. Spain argues that there is a constitutional difference involved, but I find it utterly hypocritical that it should take such a line. It is a matter of particular interest that Ceuta is being used to refuel Russian warships. If, as Spain maintains, Ceuta is a part of Spain rather than an overseas territory, that would result in the rather unusual situation of a NATO country refuelling Russian warships while NATO is in dispute with Russia over Ukraine.

In a previous life, I had the honour of being one of six representatives in the European Parliament for Gibraltar and south-west England. My experience is that when Spain closes the border, it is the workers of La Línea and the people of Gibraltar who are really affected by the economic problems that ensue. However, Spain is affected as well. The whole situation is absolutely ridiculous. Aviation also plays a part in the economy of Gibraltar. I thank my right hon. Friend for his report. Spain is a real bully, and it must be stood up to. I am not a great believer in sending everything to the European Court, but I think it is time to refer Spain to it, because it is completely out of order.

Gibraltar’s loss is Parliament’s gain, following my hon. Friend’s move from the European Parliament to this House. He is quite right about Spain’s bullying approach. Over the past year, the Government have been right not to raise the temperature and to try to keep the situation calm. However, as the First Minister said in evidence to the Committee, a year has gone by, the queues are still there and the talks are not happening. That is why we are now calling for a more robust approach by the Foreign Office, and I hope that it will agree with us in its response.

I commend my right hon. Friend and his Committee for their excellent report. Given the growing number of major and minor maritime incursions into Gibraltarian waters by civilian and official vessels from Spain, and the great terrorist risk that Britain and her territories face, particularly at this time of tension in the middle east, someone is going to get killed sooner or later unless we prevent this escalation. I was concerned to read in the report that, despite Gibraltar being a self-governing territory with a constitution, legislature and Government, it is still on the UN list of non-self-governing territories. Given the UK’s presence as a permanent member of the Security Council and a founding member of the United Nations, should not Her Majesty’s Government make it a top priority to get Gibraltar off that list?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to the risk of further escalation leading to loss of life, and to the importance of getting a grip on the situation before it gets hopelessly out of control. He referred to the UN list of non-self-governing countries. I have to confess that I am not an expert on the internal machinations relating to voting rights inside the UN, but he makes a strong point. I gather from private conversations that the Foreign Office is actively looking at the situation and that it has made repeated attempts to take Gibraltar off that list. That would make it a self-governing territory, recognised by the UN, and I hope that the Government will address this point in their response.