I beg to move,
That this House notes the Second Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, Gibraltar: Time to get off the fence, HC 461, and the Government response, Cm 8917; endorses the Committee’s position that the behaviour of the current Spanish government towards Gibraltar is unacceptable; regrets that trilateral dialogue between the UK, Gibraltar and Spain remains suspended; believes that the time has come for more concerted action; and invites the Government to review its policy towards Spain on Gibraltar.
This motion stands in my name and that of the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes). It invites the Government to review their policy towards Spain and their dispute with Gibraltar. Gibraltar is a key strategic asset for Britain and its allies. It has provided employment and prosperity to the region for decades. It is steeped in history and is a notable tourist centre.
Gibraltar has, by extension, been a part of the European Union since the UK joined in 1973. Its membership is accepted in international law, and it is represented in the European Parliament by MEPs from the south-west region. Last year, its football team played its first European football match.
Gibraltar has inevitably been a source of controversy, but it faces a crisis that we all thought was behind us when Spain joined the EU in 1989. The fact is that Spain, a fellow member of the EU and a partner in NATO, is deliberately as a matter of policy undermining the economy of Gibraltar—a British overseas territory. Its hostile behaviour cannot be ignored any longer. Spain’s chosen method is aviation policy and random, unnecessary and superfluous searches of people and vehicles on the border causing, at times, delays of up to six hours or more.
Ironically, the impact is felt on both sides of the border. Up to 10,000 Spanish workers cross the border each day to work in Gibraltar. If someone is running a business and does not know whether the staff will turn up at 9 am or at lunch time, that business suffers. All this has a profound effect on the territory. Visitor numbers have dropped significantly in the last couple of years, with an estimated loss of almost £40 million in tourist expenditure. Interestingly, some of the strongest evidence the Select Committee received was from a Spanish workers’ organisation that was concerned about high unemployment and poverty on the Spanish side of the border. This is an unacceptable situation.
The UK has the responsibility of safeguarding Gibraltar’s territorial waters and ensuring that it is both treated and respected as a member of the EU. Last July, the Foreign Affairs Committee expressed the view that the Government should take a tougher line. In particular, we recommended that if there were no improvement within six months, the Government should invoke article 259 of the EU treaty for violation of EU obligations on the free movement of people. Six months have elapsed since then, and there are still incidents of long and unnecessary delays on the border—despite the personal intervention of the Prime Minister in conversations with the Spanish Prime Minister at the height of the crisis in 2013.
In what I can describe, regrettably, only as a weak response to our report, the Government said that they had not ruled out an article 259 action but would rather leave it to the European Commission to resolve the situation. I hope that the Minister will understand if that response causes some mirthless merriment on these Benches. It could be a long wait. Even worse, the Commission concluded in 2013 that, although the intensity of Spain’s checks was unjustified and it had serious concerns about it, there was no violation of EU law. So in his response to the debate, will the Minister set a deadline for the commencement of action under article 259?
The dispute has a 300-year history, but in the last three years, the Partido Popular Government in Spain have taken a more hard-line approach. They have significantly increased pressure on Gibraltar and its people, and the Gibraltarians have suffered. Apart from the border delays, they have had to put up with 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.
The difficulties faced by the current UK Government are, in part, a legacy of regrettable decisions made in 2001 to allow joint sovereignty discussions, which raised expectations on the Spanish side. After protests in Gibraltar and an overwhelming referendum supporting continued membership as a British overseas territory, the discussions were dropped.
Since 2004, the Government have sought to maintain a consistent message—first that no discussions will take place without the consent of the people of Gibraltar, and secondly, sovereignty will not be transferred against their wishes. This is the correct approach, and it should be consistently reaffirmed. This double lock has provided Gibraltar with security following a difficult period, and this guarantee of self-determination should never be abandoned again.
Also since 2004, consultations have taken place through a trilateral forum with Spain and Gibraltar. In 2006, the meeting held in Cordoba resulted in agreement on a number of issues—in particular on air movements, recognition of Gibraltarian dialling codes and improved flows at the border. It was also agreed that the UK could pay pensions to Spanish workers affected by Franco’s closure of the border from 1969 to 1982. This is projected to cost the UK taxpayer £73 million.
Following the election of Prime Minister Rajoy in November 2011, however, the trilateral talks have been summarily ended by Spain and some of the terms of the Cordoba agreement have been broken, although the UK, I am proud to say, is keeping its side of the bargain and meeting the agreed pension arrangements. Efforts have been made to hold ad hoc talks, but none have taken place. If a date has still not been fixed, I invite the Minister to assess whether we are being taken for a ride here and whether this might be telling him something—that Spain thinks we are a soft touch.
Meanwhile, the illegal incursions into Gibraltar’s territorial waters continue. These incursions are outside the right of safe passage and now number hundreds since their escalation in 2012. The Spanish vessels making the incursions, which include police vessels, refuse to recognise the authority of the Royal Gibraltar police or, more seriously, the Royal Navy. The aggressive tactics used, resulting in collisions and a danger of serious injury, make it difficult, if not impossible, for the police and the Royal Navy to enforce their authority and British sovereignty.
At worst, there is a danger of a potentially serious incident at sea. Are we going to respond, or are we just a soft touch? Has the Minister considered arresting a Spanish vessel? The Royal Navy has two patrol boats—quite ageing, but they are still working—and three ribs under the commander of British forces in Gibraltar. Will the Minister confirm in his response—this is important to many people—that there will be no reduction in this deployment? We welcome the increased number of warships transiting via Gibraltar, but we believe that there should be a more robust approach to defending Gibraltar’s territorial waters.
The Foreign Office rightly makes diplomatic protests about each incursion, but we were dismayed to discover that they are lodged sometimes weeks after the event. I welcome the Government’s confirmation that a maximum of seven days is now the norm and that an immediate summons of the ambassador applies in serious cases. The Government describe summoning as a
“very serious form of diplomatic protest”
and rightly summoned the ambassador to protest over traffic delays at the border. To digress for a second, that is in stark contrast to the Foreign Office’s refusal to summons the Chinese ambassador when the Foreign Affairs Committee was banned from entering Hong Kong. I am not sure what that tells us about the Foreign Office’s attitude towards the House.
Spain is now engaged in a full-on diplomatic offensive, using international institutions to manifest its hostility to Gibraltar’s sovereignty. In the EU, it has broken terms of the Cordoba agreement and is seeking to exclude Gibraltar from EU aviation legislation.
I salute the work that my right hon. Friend and his Select Committee have done on this issue and the robust line it has taken. He mentions aviation. Will he confirm what our noble Friend Lord Astor said in the other place—that the Spanish will not apparently allow Royal Air Force aircraft to overfly Spanish airspace on their way to and from Gibraltar? The cost of that to the British taxpayer is an additional £5,000 to £10,000 for each flight. Is that not disgraceful behaviour from a NATO ally?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Indeed, not just United Kingdom aircraft but all NATO aircraft are prevented from overflying Spain if they have taken off from Gibraltar. I shall say more about that later.
As I was saying, in the European Union, Spain has broken key terms of the Cordoba agreement and is seeking to exclude Gibraltar from EU aviation legislation. That is damaging the economy: I have heard reports of businesses relocating because of poor flight connections. As for Spain’s behaviour at December’s EU Transport Council, it amounted to nothing less than open hostility. Spain persuaded both the presidency and the Commission to amend the draft single European sky legislation on air traffic control to exclude Gibraltar.
I am pleased that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill) is present, and I was also pleased to hear that he had walked out of that meeting in protest. I am not sure that we would expect Foreign Office Ministers to walk out of meetings in protest—it is not quite their style—but I hope that the strong way in which my hon. Friend made his protest will have been noted. I should add that it is to the Government’s credit that they have threatened to veto the proposed EU-Ukraine aviation agreement if Gibraltar is excluded from it. However, the real issue, and what is of real concern, is why the Commission has come down on the side of Spain. So much for leaving the Commission to decide on the rights and wrongs of this dispute.
In the United Nations, Spain continues to lobby against the removal of Gibraltar from the list of non-self-governing territories. As it is obviously not such a territory, it should not be on the list. In May last year, Minister Joe Bassano told a UN special committee that Spain was running a campaign to deprive Gibraltar of its right to self-determination, using the arguments of Franco’s fascist Government. The response was, in the words of Gibraltar’s First Minister—who I am pleased to see is with us today—“a deafening silence”. All that is clear evidence of Spain’s politically motivated campaign. I invite the Minister to update us on developments in all those institutions, and, more important, on what the Government’s response will be—or are we just another soft touch?
In an increasingly troubled world, Spain’s behaviour as an ally is becoming increasingly unreliable. While refuelling Russian warships in its sovereign enclave of Ceuta, it continues to posture inside NATO, at a time when Russia is invading Ukraine and flexing its muscles in the Baltic and the northern approaches. Moreover—this brings me to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth)—Spain’s ban on NATO forces moving directly between Spain and Gibraltar is immature and to the detriment of western security. If they are landing on or taking off from Gibraltar, the military aircraft of any NATO member are not allowed to overfly Spain.
In the event of trouble, Spain would quickly turn to NATO and the United Kingdom for military help, and would get it. Perhaps, at the moment, it does indeed think that we are a soft touch. In his evidence, the Minister told the Committee that, in the absence of any diplomatic initiative, the UK’s forces simply work around it. That is completely unacceptable. Will the Government review the issue and enlist the support of other NATO countries in ensuring that this strategically illiterate ban is lifted?
To date, the Government have sought to de-escalate tensions. That cautious approach is not producing dividends. The Government fear that a more muscular approach will only make things worse, but at times things must get worse before they can get better. If Gibraltar is prepared to accept the consequences of a more robust approach, we should embark on it. In our report, we said that the Government were “sitting on the fence”; in their response, they peevishly said they had
“never been on the fence”
in the first place. To be fair, however, the Government are continuing the policy that they inherited from the last Government, and the First Minister has acknowledged that the language now is more robust than it has been for 30 years.
Spain is a key partner for the United Kingdom, both bilaterally and in the EU and NATO. It is testimony to the importance that both states ascribe to the bilateral relationship that it remains strong, despite our differences. However, Spain should not be able to pursue aggressive policies towards Gibraltar without consequences for its relationship with the UK. The UK Government have shown restraint in response to provocation by Spain. The hard truth is that the UK’s approach of consistently trying to de-escalate tensions in the face of mounting provocation has had little discernible effect, apart from giving Gibraltarians the impression that not enough is being done. It is now time to end the policy of restraint and to think hard about what measures can be taken to discourage Spain from exerting pressure on Gibraltar in the future.
Order. I must advise Members who wish to speak in the debate that a time limit may not be necessary if speeches are curtailed to 10 minutes—give or take a minute or two on either side—with interventions. If the position changes during the afternoon, I will of course inform Members, but I think that we should get through the debate comfortably if each Member who has indicated a wish to speak does so for approximately 10 minutes, which will leave time for the winding-up speeches.
Let me begin where the right hon. Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway) ended. We in this country have important relations with Spain in the context of a number of issues. As the Committee itself made clear, Spain is an important European Union and NATO partner, and co-operates with the United Kingdom on a number of our strategic priorities. Some of those are listed in the report, including counter-terrorism and the combating of drug smuggling. There is an economic agenda within the European Union, and a reform agenda. Migration policy is a complex issue, and there are wider international and trade matters. Both the United Kingdom and Spain have historic associations with both north and south America that date from the colonial period, and both countries have a strong interest in the current talks on the transatlantic trade and investment partnership. Beyond that, both countries, as democratic, pluralistic societies, are appalled by terrorism, whether it is carried out in Paris or in countries such as Iraq and Syria.
We have a common agenda in many respects, and for that reason it is really shocking that the present right-wing Spanish Government, run by the Partido Popular, have decided to tear up the co-operation developed from 2004 onwards by the previous Labour Government and the previous socialist Government—run by the Partido Socialista Obrero Español—as well as the Cordoba agreement to which the right hon. Member for Croydon South referred.
We began our Gibraltar inquiry following our decision to conduct an inquiry into United Kingdom consular work, and to visit the consular hub that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had established in Malaga, in southern Spain. From Malaga, we went to Gibraltar. Our visit to Malaga and our conversations with British people living and working in Spain—about 1 million people live there happily—showed us that Spanish people are hospitable, kind, friendly and supportive. Many Spanish people in the local authority that we visited were assisting British citizens who were resident in Spain.
Meanwhile, in the past two or three years an increasing number of Spanish people—predominantly young people—have come to work in London and other parts of the United Kingdom, including cities, because of the economic difficulties in Spain. There is two-way traffic. There are families consisting of children born in one country and parents from the two countries. There is a mixture consisting of many people with connections between the United Kingdom and Spain, including some senior political figures in our Government.
The hon. Gentleman pre-empts my next point.
It became apparent to me during the inquiry—the Committee Chairman touched on this—that there are 8,000 or 9,000 people who every day travel from Spain into Gibraltar to work, so a very large number of Spanish citizens depend on the Gibraltarian economy for their employment and prosperity. Why, then, are the Spanish Government behaving in such a stupid way by stopping those workers either travelling to work or coming home because they face queues and delays of two, three or four hours in getting across the border in their vehicles or, sometimes, on foot? This is an ideologically driven agenda designed by people in Madrid who clearly do not care about the livelihoods of the members of the trade unions I met here in the House of Commons who had come from the south of Spain to talk to British MPs about the difficulties they face. They were hosted by Unite, which has associations with workers both in Gibraltar and internationally in Spain.
A clue is provided by the politics of Andalucia and the south of Spain: they generally vote for the left, whereas the Government in Madrid are dominated by the right. Sadly, therefore, since the change in 2011 the Madrid Government have shown contempt for their own citizens and their economic interests by behaving in a vindictive way against Gibraltar and at the same time damaging the interests of Spanish people and workers.
The British Government should be doing more to highlight the situation, as should international organisations such as the International Labour Organisation and those that look at issues to do with human rights and free movement.
Why has this issue come up at this moment in time? In Spain—and, indeed, elsewhere—there has been a rise of populist opposition against the incumbent Government. The governing party might believe it can pander to those opponents by raising the nationalist card over Gibraltar and thereby diverting attention from the country’s internal economic problems. I do not think that is going to work in the long term, but we shall see, because Spain, like the UK, is supposed to have an election this year. I do not think the governing parties in either country will get the results they want, but I do not want to get diverted into domestic politics.
Our Government must be more robust on this matter internationally. We have seen in a number of international forums that when the British Government are determined, they can make a real difference, but we have not been strong enough or vocal enough on the issue of Gibraltar. There is clearly international support for the UK position in many countries, but we are not doing enough to build that support, whereas Spain is working very hard internationally in its own interests.
A resolution tabled in the US Congress last year referred to the rights of self-determination of the people of Gibraltar. It is clear from a letter that has only just become public that, from September, the Spanish ambassador to the United States lobbied extremely hard against it, using all kinds of implied threats about the consequences, to try to stop that bipartisan resolution being carried in the US House of Representatives.
Internationally, it is clear that the present Spanish Government, unlike their predecessors, are not interested in coming to a modus vivendi on these issues. The previous Spanish Government did not accept, and would never accept, that there was any question of British sovereignty of Gibraltar, but they accepted the reality that there was an agreement to differ and that they should therefore deal with the practical issues and leave the other issues to one side. That is how the improvements from 2004 onwards were achieved and sustained. The ideological approach of the current Spanish Government, however, seems to put a nationalist agenda before the interests of their own people, and ahead of co-operation with the UK and the interests of the people of Gibraltar.
Our report has highlighted an important issue. Apparently the situation has improved since we published it, with a reduction in the number and intensity of obstructions to people travelling into and out of Gibraltar, but that can be switched on or off at any time, as we saw when we visited. When we drove into Gibraltar, there was no queue. We went to our hotel and within an hour we had a call saying that suddenly there was a massive backlog at the border because the Spanish police were imposing restrictions and searching all vehicles. There was a big queue and the car park was full in the space of only about 40 minutes to an hour. This is politically motivated and it is being run by special paramilitary police from Madrid, not the local police. It is all part of a special, politically designed operation.
The truth needs to be told. We need to get this agenda out: there are people in Spain who have an agenda based on an ideological approach that damages the working of the EU—it damages the possibility of agreements within the EU being arrived at in a timely manner—as well as the interests of the Spanish people and the democratic, self-determination interests of the people of Gibraltar. I hope the Government will heed what is said in this debate and be more forceful and vocal on these matters in future.
May I begin by congratulating the Committee on producing such an excellent and well thought out report and, perhaps more importantly, the people and the Government of Gibraltar on creating an undoubted international success story? Anyone who has visited Gibraltar in recent times will have seen that it has a vibrant, booming economy, not least because of the low-tax regime the Government operate, which this House would do well to look at.
Visitors to Gibraltar can see the level of investment, such as that by international hotel chains, which is testament to international investors’ confidence in Gibraltar’s future. They can see, as the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) said, the queues of those coming into Gibraltar to work from Spain, whose economy is less than robust at present. Shops in Gibraltar are crammed with Spanish consumers trying to buy goods at lower prices. This is a great opportunity not only for Gibraltar but for the wider region. It is an economic success story, in that only 7% of the Gibraltar economy is now dependent on military spending of any sort.
This is more than just an economic success, however. The population of Gibraltar is confident and secure in Gibraltar’s status as a British overseas territory. The population were given UK citizenship under the British Nationality Act 1981, and they have overwhelmingly restated their desire to remain British, reaffirming their democratic mandate in the 2002 referendum. I make these points because every single one of those facts puts the people of Gibraltar on the right side of international law, and our own Government should make that point clearly at every possible opportunity.
As a former Defence Secretary, I naturally look favourably on Gibraltar’s strategic advantage to the United Kingdom. It has played a major role in our security since it was ceded by Spain—in perpetuity, let us remember—under the treaty of Utrecht. It has always been an important base for the Royal Navy. It has associations with Trafalgar—the Trafalgar cemetery is testament to that—with Crimea, with world war two and with supporting the taskforce in the liberation of the Falklands. Those were all great contributions to our wider security. As Secretary of State, I visited Gibraltar to thank our Royal Navy personnel following the Libya situation, in which Gibraltar again played an important role.
This is not just about our security, however. As an important NATO base and an important signals intelligence gathering station, Gibraltar contributes to the wider security of the alliance. That includes the Spanish people themselves. The intelligence gathering that we do in Gibraltar is for our wider common security, but that is being undermined by the ridiculous antics of the Spanish Government. Gibraltar is also a major stopping-off point for our nuclear submarines and those of the United States, one of our most important allies. The US understands the importance of Gibraltar as a base.
My right hon. Friend mentions the United States. Some people there might indeed understand the importance of Gibraltar, but does he agree that, as the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) pointed out, there are many in the United States who are unfortunately tempted by the antics of the Spanish Government into believing that this is somehow about colonialism? Will my right hon. Friend pay tribute to our mutual friend Luke Coffey, who is the Margaret Thatcher Fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington? He has done a tremendous amount to raise awareness on Capitol hill of the importance of Gibraltar not only to the United Kingdom but to NATO and the United States.
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. Luke Coffey is not only a mutual friend of ours; he was also a special adviser in the Ministry of Defence. His work at the Heritage Foundation has been instrumental in pushing understanding of the wider issues on Capitol hill. The hon. Member for Ilford South mentioned the resolution in Congress. I shall tell the House exactly what it said. It was a bipartisan resolution, as the hon. Gentleman correctly said, and it was put forward in the House of Representatives. It stated:
“Resolved, That it is the sense of the House of Representatives that—
(1) the United States honors the contribution that Gibraltar has made to advancing United States’ security interests in the Mediterranean region since 1801 and extends its deepest appreciation and thanks to the government of Gibraltar and its citizens;
(2) the views and rights of Gibraltarians should be taken into account in any discussion on the future of Gibraltar.”
Our American allies, and our colleagues in the House of Representatives, understand that being on the right side of international law is of prime importance. We need to make that point as clearly as we possibly can.
To be frank, Spain’s behaviour is at best bullying, petulant, childish and utterly hypocritical. The clearest example in recent times has been the air safety deal, which has already been mentioned. Whatever anyone might think of the merits or demerits of the single European sky, it is intended to reduce delays for European passengers and to minimise the risk of near misses, thus improving passenger safety. There is not, as the European Union has stated, a dispute between Britain and Spain over this matter. This is blatant interference by Spain in an EU project that was progressing very nicely, and this ridiculous obstruction will, by definition, make things less safe for Spanish air passengers. I should like to congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill) on showing great leadership, clarity and courage in walking out of the meeting on these issues. Absenting himself from what was clearly an Alice in Wonderland situation was the best thing to do, and he deserves great support in the House for having done it.
As has already been mentioned, it is the maritime incursions that most clearly signpost Spain’s behaviour. They have become more frequent and more dangerous. Twice in 2014, the Spanish state survey ship, the Angeles Alvariño, under the command of Spain’s economic ministry, has been responsible for dangerous and irresponsible manoeuvring in British Gibraltarian territorial waters. The Minister for Europe, my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr Lidington), has said:
“The irresponsible actions and dangerous manoeuvring of this vessel were not only unlawful but also presented a significant risk to the safety of Royal Navy personnel at sea. Under no circumstances should Spanish vessels be provoking a situation that could result in serious injury or a fatality.”
These are our own armed forces, and we must be willing to speak out in the strongest possible terms about the safety of our military personnel.
These activities are part of an attempt to destabilise not only Gibraltar but the wider region. It is worth pointing out what Spain’s behaviour is like in the wider region. She continues to be in disagreement with Morocco over maritime boundaries in the strait of Gibraltar. This is because of Spain’s hold over her north African enclaves and rocks, which she uses to interpret maritime boundaries in her favour. She effectively seeks to deny Morocco any degree of control in the strait. Of course, the Spanish ownership of those north African territories undermines almost every argument she makes about Gibraltar, and demonstrates the most breathtaking hypocrisy in current European policy that I can think of.
On 5 July 2013, Spain sent a letter of official complaint to the United Nations, which the hon. Member for Ilford South mentioned. It complained that Portugal’s Savage islands were rocks. The islands lie halfway between the Canary islands and Madeira. This was yet another attempt by Spain to increase her influence in the wider area. On 17 December 2014—just a month ago—Spain submitted to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf information on the limits of the shelf beyond 200 nautical miles from the baselines from which the breadth of its territorial sea is measured in respect of the area west of the Canary islands. Again, that move by Spain is at the expense of Portugal and Morocco. There is a clear pattern here; what is happening in Gibraltar is not an isolated incident.
Gibraltar is a great success story and will continue to be one. The people of Gibraltar deserve all the support we can give them. The message to our Spanish colleagues has to be that Gibraltar is British. They need to get over it and start working in a way that is consistent with being a NATO ally and an EU member. But Spain is serious about its approach to Gibraltar. It is time our Government were equally serious about our approach to Spain, if we are serious about Gibraltar ourselves.
It is a great pleasure, if not slightly daunting, to follow my friend and neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox). I hope he will forgive me if I repeat one or two of the points he eloquently made.
First, I wish to declare an interest, in that I was honoured to be elected the chairman of the all-party group on Gibraltar in September last year. Unfortunately, it was in the worst of circumstances, following the very sad and sudden death of the former Member for Heywood and Middleton, Jim Dobbin. I am proud to say that Jim was a friend of mine; one of the nicest and most decent Members of Parliament I have ever met and worked with, he is an extremely tough act to follow as chairman. I have been a member of the all-party group since 2010, in which capacity I have been invited to Gibraltar by the Gibraltar Government and visited a number of times over the past four years.
I have got to know Gibraltar very well over the past 10 years or so, and it has important links with the south-west region. In 2004, Gibraltar was able to vote in the European elections for the first time and, as a candidate in that election for the south-west region, I spent many weeks campaigning in Gibraltar that year. When the case was made that Gibraltar should be in the South West region, it was specifically on the basis of the self-evident links that tie Gibraltar with my home region— shared coastal traditions; unique and intertwined maritime heritage; mutual support for defence capability; and interest in contemporary industries, such as tourism. Those dictate that there was no other logical outcome. The south-west is seen by most as the home of the Royal Marines, and it is no coincidence—indeed it is for a proud battle honour—that the cap badge of the Royal Marines is inscribed with the word “Gibraltar”.
Gibraltar is a vital strategic asset, commanding the straits of Gibraltar and being the gateway between the Atlantic and Mediterranean. It is one of the UK’s permanent joint operating bases. It is also used for the forward mounting of operations in the Mediterranean, north Africa and the Gulf and, as my right hon. Friend said, for vital intelligence gathering. I know that our comrades and friends in the United States also see Gibraltar as a vital strategic asset to NATO and to them. Gibraltar continues to be a crucial military base, with approximately 155 UK military personnel serving in the headquarters of the British forces Gibraltar. In addition, approximately 705 Ministry of Defence UK-based and locally employed civilian personnel provide support services to defence operations, including 95 serving in the Gibraltar defence police. The Royal Gibraltar Regiment comprises 226 full-time and 166 reserve personnel, who are routinely deployed on operations and exercises with other units in the British Army. The regiment’s personnel have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and have been decorated for service in these operational theatres.
I totally agree with what the Chief Minister of Gibraltar said to the Foreign Affairs Committee about his wish to see a larger Royal Navy presence in Gibraltar. I would also argue that too little progress has been made over the past 16 years towards lifting NATO’s reservation against ships travelling between Spanish and Gibraltarian ports, and on overflying rights, which have been mentioned by a couple of my colleagues. The Government should actively seek for this position to be overturned. I thank the Foreign Affairs Committee for its substantial and thorough report.
I fully agree that, while intensifying the diplomatic pressure, the Government have made it clear to the Spanish Government that Gibraltar is self-governing, and the Gibraltarians have consistently and democratically made clear their wish to stay British. In the 2002 referendum held by Gibraltar’s Government, almost 99% voted no to shared Spanish and British sovereignty, on about an 88% turnout. As the Prime Minister pledged in his speech on Gibraltar national day in 2013,
“the British Government wholeheartedly supports your right to determine your political future. As I have said before, we will never agree to any transfer of sovereignty—or even start a process of negotiation of sovereignty—without your consent. And I wouldn’t want us ever to go down that route. Gibraltar has been British for 300 years. Let’s keep it that way.”
The Spanish Government’s recent behaviour towards Gibraltar, be it the illegal and politically motivated border delays of often several hours, the illegal incursions into Gibraltarian territorial waters—in 2013 there were 496 such incursions—the threats against bunkering companies operating in British Gibraltarian territorial waters, which are a big part of Gibraltar’s economy, and the aim of limiting Gibraltar’s aviation rights, is appalling and completely unacceptable. The fact that the Spanish ambassador to the UK has had to be summoned by the Foreign Office five times in the last couple of years is shocking—on that front, our NATO and European ally is in the same group as Syria, Iran and North Korea, which is plainly and frankly ridiculous.
Given the Spanish Government’s ongoing behaviour, it is fully understandable that Gibraltarians feel threatened, bullied and under siege. As far as the incursions by the Spanish into Gibraltarian territory are concerned, the Government should use article 259 to take Spain to the European Court if the situation does not rapidly improve, and the Government should seek a much stronger response from the European Commission on Spain’s behaviour at the border crossing. The current Government of Spain’s attitude to Gibraltar shows complete hypocrisy given their own contested and larger overseas territories—Ceuta, which has been Spanish since 1668, and Melilla, which has been Spanish since 1497—which are surrounded and disputed by Morocco.
I welcome the Government’s response to the Select Committee’s report. Gibraltar should definitely be removed from the UN’s list of non self-governing territories. Indeed not removing it rather undermines the UN’s list as Gibraltar is obviously self-governing. I understand the Government’s response to this, but urge the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister to continue to exert pressure. We need more high-profile ministerial visits, which would highlight our solidarity and support for the people of Gibraltar. Is it not time, as others have said, that we have another royal visit to the Rock of Gibraltar?
Gibraltar is a success story of which we can all be proud. Recent economic growth stands at 7%. Its GDP is estimated at £1.4 billion in 2013-14, which is equivalent to just over £43,000 per head. That is considerably higher than the UK as a whole, which is about £26,000 per head, and Spain, which is under £20,000 per head. The GDP of the neighbouring Spanish province of Andalucia was estimated at £14,300 per head in 2013, which may explain why 7,000 to 10,000 Spanish citizens cross the border every day to work in Gibraltar. I understand that the local authorities in Andalucia have complained about border delays to the Spanish Government.
Finally, every time I visit Gibraltar, I marvel that on a small piece of land, the Rock, there is a fantastic melting pot of cultures and religions. We have Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Catholics, Protestants and Sikhs living in harmony and peace, thriving and secure. Indeed, Gibraltar is an example to the world, and I am hugely proud that it is part of the great British family.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway) and his Committee on their excellent report and on giving us the opportunity to debate this important issue today. We have had excellent speeches from everybody in this debate so far. The hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) and I may be able to look forward to the day when West Ham United sign up a Gibraltarian professional footballer if Gibraltar’s football team continues with its international success.
On a serious note, important issues have been raised. A key issue that we need to grasp—it was mentioned by the hon. Member for Ilford South and echoed by my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox)—is that Gibraltar has become a central plank of Spanish foreign policy. I regret to say that the defence of the British citizens of Gibraltar is not generally perceived as a central plank of the policy agenda of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Although I cannot disagree factually with anything in the Government’s response to the report, the tone could and legitimately should be more assertive in the defence of Gibraltar as a British territory. Sometimes there is this sense, which I know is not shared by my right hon. Friend the Minister, that, going back to the errors of 2001-02, defending Gibraltar has been seen as a bit of an add-on in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and we need to do more to put that right.
One area where the Government’s response is not adequate is around the potential use of article 259. It is quite clear that Spain is in breach of its obligations as a member of NATO and of the European Union. Frankly, its behaviour is not consistent with that of a friend and an ally. That is the tragedy and the reality. Although there have been difficulties in the past, it might be worth noting that previous Parti Populaire Governments in Spain, while always wrongly maintaining their claim, have not felt it necessary to escalate the tensions at the border in the way that the current Rajoy Government do. The Aznar Government adopted a rather different approach. Of course the Government are right to want to de-escalate the situation, but it takes two to de-escalate. If Spain is not prepared to do so, and if it is in breach of its international legal obligations, we should not be afraid to use the mechanisms available to us.
May I say gently that I am concerned about the undue reliance on the European Commission in dealing with these matters? I say that because, as a junior Minister, I had experience of the workings of the Commission. History shows that the European Commission cannot be regarded as having acted even-handedly towards Gibraltar in the past. Appendix B of the report sets out the background to the legal dispute, which makes it very clear that Spain should never have been allowed by the Commission to include what is called the Estrecho Oriental—territorial waters site—on the list of sites of community interest under the habitats directive. The habitats directive makes it clear that member states are allowed to designate sites within their own territories. Under international law, the European Commission should not have permitted the area designated by Spain that includes parts of Gibraltan territorial waters to be included. It breached that fundamental requirement, but was not challenged by the Commission, so it is difficult for us to have complete faith in the Commission’s even hand in this regard.
The appendix also sets out what seems to me at least to be a significant charge of negligence against the Foreign Office—even though this happened before the Government came to office, I do not mean this as a party political point—in failing to present the designation of the site of community interest at the time. The previous junior Minister at the Foreign Office said:
“The UK had no reason to and did not check the thousand or so existing or proposed Spanish sites.”
I am sorry, but we know that Spain has consistently adopted a hostile policy towards Gibraltar and that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset has said, Spain has consistently sought to adopt an aggressive stance on territorial waters. One might think that if the FCO could have checked that—there is no reason why it could not have—it would have been an obvious check to carry out. It did not check and that is a serious error on the part of the FCO, which needs to live it down by being more robust.
I hope that when my right hon. Friend the Minister replies he will be more robust than the written text put out by the FCO on the question of the hypocrisy over Ceuta and Melilla. The argument is a strong one and the Foreign Office’s written response is too dismissive, simply saying that it is a different case. That is a nice bit of legalese, but morally it is not a different case. We should not only be saying that and putting much more pressure on Spain in that regard, but encouraging the development of practical links with Morocco, which has adopted a very constructive attitude towards Gibraltar in the past. Morocco has a better record of dealing with its recent difficulties than many other north African states and that is something practical we could do to strengthen transport and other links.
My hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) talked about the integration and community cohesion in Gibraltarian society. He is absolutely right and I have noticed that because I, too, had the pleasure of visiting Gibraltar in the autumn and I saw precisely that cohesion and harmony, including among many of the Moroccan residents who have come to Gibraltar and stayed there. Those are links we should develop. We should also remember that Gibraltar has a significant, active and welcome Jewish population. In current times, that is valuable and something we should cherish. Part of the reason for that is that Gibraltar is not only an economic and social success but benefits from a robust common law jurisdiction. During my visit, I had the opportunity to meet senior members of the judiciary and of the police and the legal profession.
At the beginning of last month, we had the opportunity in a Westminster Hall debate to refute some of the utterly false allegations that have been put about by the Spanish Government, which have been swallowed by one or two Members of this House who ought to have known better, that Gibraltar is in any way deficient in its dealing with those issues. It was made very clear—I am delighted to say that my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General said this on behalf of the Government in absolutely unequivocal terms—that Gibraltar meets the highest standards of international legal co-operation. Its police force, its judiciary and its legal profession operate to exactly the same standards as we would expect of those within the United Kingdom.
I am sure that many of us will want to congratulate the Attorney-General of Gibraltar, Ricky Rhoda, on being awarded the honour of Commander of the British Empire. He will be retiring next year after some 15 years in service. He is a distinguished lawyer and a distinguished public servant who works to exactly the same standards as we see in the UK. We need to say that robustly, because part of Spain’s attempt to undermine Gibraltar’s economic interests has been to attack its financial regime, its legal regime and key economic interests such as bunkering, the gaming industry and the aviation industry. We need to be more assertive about this.
I have been critical of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in some respects, but this autumn I also had the opportunity of visiting our embassy in Madrid and I pay tribute to Simon Manley, the ambassador, and his team there, who do a very professional job. What is required is a clear direction from the centre that we regard Gibraltar and its interests as of the same high priority as Foreign Minister García-Margall has made them for the Spanish Government. There is political will within the House to do that and it would have support on both sides of the House. I hope the debate has given us the opportunity to set out that approach.
We want Spain as an ally and partner within the EU and NATO, but that cannot be at the expense of undermining our protection for a dynamic British overseas territory with British citizens who meet the highest of British standards in every respect. They were—dare I say—developing a thriving democracy before that happened in their larger neighbour. There is irony in the attitude adopted by members of the current Government in Madrid, who have a very short view of history. The Government and the Foreign Office should not be afraid to stand up and say that robustly.
I commend the Foreign Affairs Committee for its report, which includes thoughtful analysis. This is a timely debate. The Liberal Democrats have a soft spot for Gibraltar currently. We do not often refer to the outcome of the 2014 European elections, but there was a 49% swing to the Liberal Democrats in Gibraltar, which must be some kind of record for representative democracy, let alone for the Liberal Democrats. That is obviously testament to the outstanding good sense of the people of Gibraltar, but it is also a tribute to the hard work and diligence of Sir Graham Watson, Gibraltar’s Member of the European Parliament, who for many years took a close interest in Gibraltarian matters and was a strong advocate for the people of Gibraltar. I was personally sad that he narrowly missed re-election on that day and pay tribute to his hard work and diligence for all the people of south-west England, but for Gibraltar particularly in the context of the debate. That underlines that Gibraltar is part of the European Union.
Spain’s behaviour towards Gibraltar is completely inappropriate for a fellow European state. There are many bonds of friendship and affection between Britain and Gibraltar, but the current situation is not about that, and not even about keeping Gibraltar British for ever—after all, as we have emphasised, it is a self-governing territory. It is about absolute support for the right to self-determination for the people of Gibraltar. It is also about the rule of law and the proper application of the rules of the European Union. Since the current Spanish Government were elected in 2011, they seem to have been on a singularly aggressive campaign to try to undermine both those principles, which is extremely unfortunate.
In passing, I should say that the Popular party is a member of the European People’s party. It is unfortunate that the Conservative party withdrew from that grouping and thereby lost an opportunity for regular informal dialogue with Spanish leaders, which might have softened the Spanish Government’s approach. That is speculation, but unfortunately, the hard fact is that their attitude has become more and not less aggressive. They have withdrawn from the trilateral forum for dialogue.
The hon. Gentleman might be right and I accept what he says in good part.
The Spanish Government have withdrawn from the trilateral forum for dialogue, which provided a framework for discussion between the three Governments. They have committed to unravel agreements entered into under the trilateral forum to which Spain had signed up. The Spanish Foreign Minister, Senor Margallo, has called that putting the toothpaste back into the tube. In response, we should tell him that that is generally a messy and pointless process. He has also used slightly more aggressive language. The Select Committee refers to his comment that “play time is over” with respect to Gibraltar, which is intimidating vocabulary. It is unfortunate that it comes from a fellow European democracy.
One arrangement entered into under the forum was that Spain promised to respect the inclusion of Gibraltar airport in EU civil aviation measures, which an hon. Member mentioned. In fact, Spain’s objections have disrupted the single European sky project. “Single European sky” is a phrase calculated to send Eurosceptic Members purple with rage, but it does not mean that Brussels is trying to take over our skies. It is a perfectly sensible and safe improvement to air traffic control measures. It includes Norway and Switzerland, so it does not require membership of the European Union.
I am not sure whether my hon. Friend and I have agreed on anything substantial before, but I thought it important to put on the record that what he says about the single European sky is absolutely right. As a Eurosceptic and an aviator, I am fully in support of this sensible co-operative measure.
The European Union has hidden benefits, which come out in detailed analysis.
Spanish aggression has not finished there. There continue to be delays at the border caused by intensive Spanish controls, which the European Commission has described as disproportionate and which seem to have got worse since the Committee’s report was published. I am told that the delay to enter Spain was about five hours on 1 December, and there have been regular delays of more than an hour going in the other direction. That does not just disrupt life for Gibraltarians; it disrupts life for the 10,000 cross-frontier workers, almost all of them Spanish. We have also seen serious incursions into British Gibraltar territorial waters by Spanish paramilitary or naval vessels. They entered Gibraltar waters more than 100 times just in December 2014, some incursions being rather more serious than others.
What do we do about this? The British Government have to strike a balance between the firm response that all hon. Members are calling for today and avoiding making the situation worse. Walking out of meetings is probably a manoeuvre that has to be used with some caution. We do not want needlessly to escalate or provoke a negative response from the Spanish. Yet, as the Committee’s report rightly points out, the idea of trying to defuse and de-escalate the dispute has not produced many results. Some detailed points in the report, such as those on the delays in lodging protests about some of the incursions into territorial waters, are well made. They send a bad diplomatic signal, and it is good that they have been tightened up.
Other measures can be considered. The UK Government should commit to taking legal action if Gibraltar airport is excluded from any EU civil aviation measures. That is a clear, calm, rational, legal process to enter into, and I would be interested to hear the Government’s response. We should certainly press the EU Commission to pay more attention to the monitoring of the border between Spain and Gibraltar, which it has said is unacceptable. It should send a permanent monitoring mission to that border to see exactly what is going on. I am sure that the British Government, and perhaps the Government of Gibraltar, would be willing to assist with that logistically and financially.
Another interesting possibility, which is discussed in the Select Committee’s report, is the idea of Gibraltar joining the Schengen agreement. That might well reduce some of the obvious problems in the areas of dispute if it was practically supported by other member states. The difficulty pointed out in the report is that the acquis is carefully defined in the European treaties, so it might require treaty change, but treaty change is in the air in Europe. There may be a possibility of treaty change in the next few years, and it might be worth taking up the opportunity of treaty change to include that as a de-escalatory measure. Technically, under Liberal Democrat policy, that would represent an increase in power, albeit a small one, from Britain to Brussels, and would therefore trigger an in-out referendum, but we might be able to embrace that at the time. We need to explore these possibilities in all seriousness. Even if a treaty change might not seem practical right now, if it is possible in the near future, we should consider it.
We should certainly look at what tougher action we can take to prevent and deter incursions into Gibraltar’s territorial waters. Serious sovereignty considerations are at stake here, and, as hon. Members have pointed out, there are fears for the safety of the crews of the Royal Navy, the Royal Gibraltar police and the Gibraltar defence police and of the Spanish vessels involved in these disputes and encounters, which in some cases are proving quite dangerous. Arresting the Spanish vessels might be seen as extremely provocative, but we need to hear from the Minister a new, robust approach to the matter in future.
The people of Gibraltar have a right to self-determination. Spain as well as this country should respect that fundamental democratic right, which is enshrined in the United Nations covenant on civil and political rights. In the past, the Government have supported the right of the people of Gibraltar to determine their own future. The Select Committee supports that right, and the House should support it today.
I am delighted that we are debating the report today. I commend my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway). The debate would not be taking place today had it not been for his casting vote on the Committee to make sure that we have the report. It is right that we should address the multitude of issues that Gibraltar has faced over many years.
However, it is wrong that we as a Foreign Affairs Committee debate and discuss issues relating to a British territory. The Committee deals with the middle east, Europe and our relations with the United States and the wider world. There is only limited time to deal with matters relating to overseas territories that are sovereign British territories, are ultimately governed by this House and are subject to British law. A new arrangement is needed so that overseas territories issues are fast-tracked. There should be a way of dealing with those issues much more quickly to ensure that overseas territories that rely on the British Government to make decisions for them and to help them deal with important matters such as those that we are debating today are able to bring them to a Committee of the House, without having to wait a long time for a Select Committee to happen to look into the matter.
The hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) said that the report on Gibraltar arose from a report we were doing on consular services. Had we not done that report and had we not gone to Malaga, I do not think we would ever have gone to Gibraltar to look into this serious issue. There must in future be a better way of dealing with issues relating to overseas territories; otherwise they will be overlooked and a serious debate such as we are having today will never take place.
As is evident from the speeches that we have heard, we are all proud of the special constitutional relationship Gibraltar has with the United Kingdom as a British overseas territory. Gibraltar is British. It has been British for over 300 years and I believe it will always remain British, not because we have decided that but because the people of the Rock have chosen that destiny. They have made their choice over and over again. The sad thing is that our Foreign Office—or our Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as it should be called—has never treated Gibraltar as equally British. It has always treated it like something down the road, to be looked at. We are always worried about upsetting Madrid, always worried about what Spain will say if we do anything on Gibraltar.
Having spoken on the subject for nearly 14 years in the Chamber, I am heartily fed up with the failure of the Foreign Office to acknowledge that Gibraltar should be defended in the same way as we would defend our own constituents. It is time that the Minister and the Foreign Office changed their approach not only to Gibraltar but to British overseas territories in general.
I am sure my hon. Friend, like me, has had the opportunity to visit Gibraltar on its national day, when everybody turns out and says that they are proud to be from Gibraltar and proud to be British. If our own Minister has not had an opportunity to do so, would it not be a good idea if he visited Gibraltar on national day and joined in the celebrations of being British and being Gibraltarian?
My hon. Friend is right. I have been privileged to go to Gibraltar national day on many occasions over the years. It is impossible to find people who are prouder of their British nationality and more determined to retain that nationality, but who feel, as we do, part of the great British family, yet continually have to justify their desire to stay British. Gibraltar is not treated as equally British, as we would expect our constituencies to be treated if ever they were under threat or if ever they were attacked by a foreign power. We need a new arrangement to give our overseas territories, particularly Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands, which have a similar problem, the right to be heard in this House, via a Select Committee or by some other means.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans) referred to Gibraltar national day. I would like to commend our Prime Minister, who the year before last became the first to send a televised message for national day, which was shown in Casemates square in Gibraltar. However, it is time that he, or even the Minister, visited Gibraltar for national day. Furthermore, it is time that there was a royal visit to Gibraltar, as my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) said. It is more than 60 years since Her Majesty the Queen visited Gibraltar. There has not been a visit by the Queen of Gibraltar in over 60 years. I think that is completely unacceptable. I have raised the matter with the Minister many times but have never got an answer from anyone in the Government.
I am delighted to hear that the Queen is to make a state visit to Germany later this year. Gibraltar is not much further away, and I have no doubt that the Government of Gibraltar would extend a very warm invitation to Her Majesty, so I ask our Government, in the last few months of this Parliament, to clear any block there might be to a royal visit. Please allow the Queen of Gibraltar the opportunity to visit her people on the Rock. There could be no clearer signal that we are utterly committed to Gibraltar and determined to support it and give it the full recognition it deserves as a loyal territory of the Crown.
So much has been said today about the problems with the borders, the maritime disputes, the European Union’s failure properly to address the issues we are debating and the negligence of the Foreign Office. I am pleased that Members of Parliament now understand the situation better than they did 14 years ago. When I was first elected, many barely even knew what Gibraltar was. Now Members on both sides of the House understand that a British overseas territory is British and that we have a duty to look after and defend its people. Dreadful mistakes were made in 2001 and 2002, when the previous Government attempted to impose a joint sovereignty deal with Madrid. I do not think that any political party in this country would make such a horrendous mistake again. That is a good thing, because it means a lesson has been learnt.
However, we cannot move forward unless the Foreign and Commonwealth Office changes its approach root and branch. We must stop appeasing Madrid and being afraid of upsetting the Spanish Government in case they might not co-operate with us on the many areas that the hon. Member for Ilford South referred to. We want to co-operate, but there cannot be good relations with the kingdom of Spain as long as it bullies British subjects living close to its land. We must give Spain the message loud and clear that its attitude to Gibraltar is unacceptable to the British Parliament and to the British people. Only the Foreign Office has the authority to make those kinds of decisions in order to show Spain that its actions have consequences. For as long as Spain continues to behave in this fashion, there will be consequences. Relations between the United Kingdom and Spain will never be warm as long as it continues to bully the people of the Rock. We need a complete shake-up in Government policy. We require a more robust stance in dealing with the issues to which I and other hon. Members have referred today.
There is one other thing that we must do. It is, in my view, completely unacceptable that the only countries and territories within the Commonwealth that are continually denied the right to lay a wreath on Remembrance Sunday are the British overseas territories. It is inexcusable that no one from Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands or any other British territory is invited to lay a wreath. We know what the argument is going to be—that the Foreign Secretary does it on behalf of the overseas territories. Well, I have news for the Minister: the Foreign Secretary was not elected by the citizens of the overseas territories; he is the British Foreign Secretary elected by the British people. The people of Gibraltar have not chosen the Foreign Secretary to lay a wreath on their behalf. Gibraltar has sent soldiers to fight and die for king, queen and country over hundreds of years, and so have the other overseas territories. If they send soldiers to fight, they should be allowed to lay a wreath on behalf of those who have lost their lives. It is inexcusable. I have heard every excuse about the palace objecting, the Foreign Secretary not having a role any more, and so on. It is all nonsense; we all know the truth. It is time that the overseas territories were given this right.
I have here a letter to the Prime Minister from the chairman of the United Kingdom Overseas Territories Association, Albert Poggio GMH OBE, who, as we all know, is the excellent head of the Gibraltar Government office here in London. Let me quote some of his words:
“Countless numbers of persons from Gibraltar and the other Overseas Territories made the supreme sacrifice in the service of the Crown and the United Kingdom in all the Wars of the 20th Century, as well as in the more recent conflicts of the 21st Century. For the Representatives of their Governments to be excluded from the Remembrance Service is, to be frank, offensive and perverse…We believe that it is now time that each of the Overseas Territories had a wreath laid by each of the Territories’ UK Representatives, on the same basis and immediately following those wreaths laid by the Commonwealth High Commissioners.”
Who can argue with that point of view?
We must raise this issue and bring it to a head before the general election. I call on the Prime Minister to intervene personally and once and for all, for ever more, give the British overseas territories the right to lay a wreath on Remembrance Sunday, just as we have this year allowed the Irish Government—the Irish ambassador —to lay a wreath in recognition of the sacrifices that Irish citizens made in the first world war and in other conflicts. This matter is overdue for resolution. I urge the Minister to take it away and resolve it before Parliament is dissolved at the end of March.
We could speak about this issue for far longer than we have time for in this debate. I feel deeply passionate about Gibraltar and wholeheartedly endorse all the comments made by my right hon. and hon. Friends. The time has come to stop appeasing Madrid, to stop pussy-footing over this issue, and to show the people of Gibraltar that we are truly on their side. People have died throughout the centuries to defend British freedom, British democracy and British territories. By being so weak over Gibraltar, as we are at the moment, we are betraying all those people who have defended British freedom over all those centuries. It is time for this Government to show real action and to defend Gibraltar as it deserves to be defended: as a British territory—a territory of the Crown—that should always be British. We have a duty to stand by it.
I speak as a member of the all-party Gibraltar group. I add my congratulations to my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway), the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, on his excellent report.
A recurring message throughout the report is the sheer frustration of the Government, the Foreign Affairs Committee, the all-party group, and, most of all, Gibraltar itself, at the total failure of that toothless tiger, the EU Commission, to take decisive action to stop Spain’s well-documented illegal actions against Gibraltar.
Anyone who has visited Gibraltar for the joyous celebration on September 10, Gibraltar day, as members of the all-party group have, can be in no doubt about its loyalty to the Queen and to the United Kingdom. Gibraltar is a true friend, and it deserves our full and robust support.
Gratuitous delays of vehicles and pedestrians at the border between Gibraltar and Spain cause unnecessary inconvenience to Spanish people working in Gibraltar, as well as to Gibraltarians. In some cases, delays have lasted as long as seven hours in hot weather, and Guardia Civil officers have behaved aggressively towards local citizens and Spanish commuters. The delays are disproportionate, politically motivated and illegal. The fact that they are switched on and off at will demonstrates that they are simply used as a coercive tool against Gibraltar. Will my right hon. Friend say what prospect there is of a stronger response by the European Commission in more closely monitoring Spain’s activities to stop its exerting such pressure on Gibraltar?
The number of unjustifiable, illegal incursions into Gibraltar’s territorial waters has increased dramatically since 2012. The behaviour of Spanish state vessels is often dangerous, and there has been at least one collision with a Royal Gibraltar Police vessel. These incursions are a violation of sovereignty. I was pleased to read that the Government now send one note verbale for every incursion, and that all protests are made within seven days, but the incursions still continue. What naval or police options might be used in a more robust response to bring these incursions to an end? We must be ready to take whatever action is necessary to defend the sovereignty of Gibraltar.
The reason for the harassment is partly the legacy of the regrettable decision of the Labour Government in 2001-02 to allow joint sovereignty talks that raised expectations on the Spanish side. The guarantee of self-determination should never be abandoned again.
If we are to make progress, tripartite talks need to be resumed, but restraint on the part of the UK Government has not produced the desired result so far. The pressure needs to be intensified without damaging the overall relationship between Spain and the UK, which could be detrimental to Gibraltar in the long run.
Gibraltar is prosperous and entrepreneurial. There must be many other opportunities for mutual trade and business arrangements between Gibraltar and Spain that would benefit both in the area around the border. If Spain were to transfer its efforts from over-zealous border checks to commercial activity, the Spanish economy would surely improve along with relations between Spain and Gibraltar and the UK.
Does the Minister have any plans to visit Gibraltar this year—he will know that this Government’s demonstrations of support are appreciated greatly—and when better to visit than on 10 September? That would show resolve in responding to harassment by the Spanish Government, and reiterate our firm position on sovereignty: Gibraltar will remain British for as long as that is the wish of the people of Gibraltar.
I rise to speak as a member of the all-party group on Gibraltar, as someone who spent many days and weeks in Gibraltar wearing uniform and as someone who loves Gibraltar and feels totally at home in the place. I therefore want to talk about the defence of Gibraltar.
As has been mentioned, the biggest military unit in Gibraltar is the Royal Gibraltar Regiment, which has both reservist and regular soldiers. The regiment’s primary duty is the defence of the Rock. Within the Rock are 34 miles of tunnels—twice the length of the entire road system around the Rock—which were dug with picks by British sappers. I say that because the Royal Gibraltar Regiment contains the British Army’s primary expertise on fighting in tunnels. In addition, it now sends its officers, non-commissioned officers and soldiers abroad with British military advisory training teams to train other nations. It is an integral part of our Army.
Morocco has already been mentioned, and since 2000 the Royal Gibraltar Regiment has been training the Moroccan army—there are quite close links—and it goes to Morocco every year as part of its overseas exercise. The chair of the all-party Gibraltar group, my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti), who has briefly absented himself from the Chamber, mentioned the gallantry of soldiers from the Rock. Indeed, the last commanding officer of the Royal Gibraltar Regiment was awarded the military cross, the third highest decoration for gallantry in this country. Those people are very much part of our country.
The Royal Navy has a regular presence in Gibraltar with 22 officers and ratings. It has two 16-metre patrol launches: HMS Scimitar and its sister ship HMS Sabre. It also has three rigid inflatables—a very small manning level for somewhere as important as Gibraltar. The squadron spends almost all its time maintaining the security and integrity of British Gibraltan territorial waters, which is not easy. In December 2014, the Royal Gibraltar Police recorded 108 incursions into British Gibraltan territorial waters, and that small force is terribly overworked. In addition, its tiny vessels are far too often dwarfed by Spanish navy ships, and in my view our naval presence in Gibraltar is too small to deal with the continuing Spanish provocation. The RAF also maintains a small presence on Gibraltar with fewer than 10 personnel. No operational RAF aircraft are permanently based there, but the airfield, as has been noted, is always maintained as a forward operating base for British military aircraft, and it has a unique position at the western end of the Mediterranean.
I believe it is time that our Minister increased the military presence in Gibraltar—[Interruption.] He turned back when I said that. There are three reasons for that. First, as Members seem to have demonstrated today, despite our repeated diplomatic protests about the bullying on the frontier and naval incursions into British Gibraltan territorial waters, our NATO and European Union ally, Spain, does absolutely nothing to stop them. Of course no one wants confrontation with Spain—far from it—but that is effectively what the Spanish continue to do to Gibraltar. Fouling up the frontier and repeatedly sending Guardia Civil and Spanish naval vessels into British Gibraltan territorial waters is hardly the act of a close ally, and it is time that we gave a concrete demonstration about our irritation with the situation. Quiet diplomacy and reason have had no impact whatsoever over the years.
Secondly, vacant military facilities in Gibraltar could easily be revitalised with minor modifications, and there are good training facilities on and around the Rock—I used them myself when I was in the Army. For instance, it has a small military training area and ranges, as well as those miles of unused tunnels, which are great fun on exercise. I am sure that such a move would be very popular on the Rock. With its budget surplus, some of the additional costs might be paid by the Government of Gibraltar.
Regular troops from the UK already replace the Royal Gibraltar Regiment when it deploys on annual exercise to Morocco. Why not put a UK-based company there, maybe on rotation from a UK-based battalion? There is space and it could easily fit under command of the Royal Gibraltar Regiment, whose commander is just as qualified to command an infantry battalion as I was in my day.
I have been on HMS Scimitar, one of the two little and very old patrol vessels and, even to a landlubber like me, both Scimitar and Sabre are well past their sell-by dates. In face-offs with much larger Spanish vessels, those small Royal Navy vessels look plain daft and—as I know from my military experience—in a deterrent situation, looks matter. Although the Royal Navy does not have many ships left, one of them could quite easily be sent to Gibraltar and based there. I do not suggest that the Royal Air Force needs to, or indeed should, permanently position aircraft on the Rock, but the frequency of training visits could be increased.
In my view, deliberate breaching of sovereign waters by military vessels can be viewed as an act of war. Spain will not like us reinforcing our military presence on the Rock, but so what? They have tried to coerce Gibraltarians for far too long. In response, our laid-back, solely diplomatic responses have always been weak and remain so. I am sorry to say that the Foreign Office is far too wet on this matter. It is clear to everyone that periodic frontier problems and sea incursions are repeatedly organised by the Spanish Government on a systematic basis. That situation is iniquitous and I call upon our Government’s Foreign Office Ministers to get serious.
We should show that we will not budge in our views on Gibraltar and that we mean business. One way to do that is by putting more military power on Gibraltar. All this aggravation from Spain is totally unnecessary and undemocratic, and we do not like it. In short, Spain should get its hands off the Rock.
I am not sure that I can follow the powerful rhetoric from my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), but I want to start by apologising to you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I had to chair Westminster Hall until 3 pm, so I apologise for my late arrival.
I also want to apologise to the people of Gibraltar. Although I have been a Member of Parliament for nearly 32 years, it was only last September that I went there—although I have always wanted to visit—as a guest of the Gibraltar Government at their national day celebrations. I declare that interest.
I am very interested in naval history so I have always taken a close interest in the history of Gibraltar. We should always remember that, but for Gibraltar, we would have lost the second world war, with all that would have pertained. We should never forget the courage of the people of Gibraltar over many years and the contribution that they have made to the defence and security of our country. That needs saying again and again.
We should also pay tribute to the courage of the Gibraltar people in the very difficult circumstances that they have faced over the last 60 years, especially when the border was closed entirely. It is very moving to talk to people from Gibraltar about those times, and their resolute determination to resist a completely illegal act.
This was the first time I went to Gibraltar. I pay tribute to my hon. Friends sitting around me who have spent years fighting the good fight. But for them, we would be in a much worse position. I urge all Members of Parliament to go to Gibraltar and, in particular, to stand in Casemates square on national day. It is a moving experience. We hear so much criticism from so many people of our country. To be in the square with 10,000 or 12,000 people who love our country, and are absolutely determined to remain a part of it, is a most moving experience.
I was speaking only on Tuesday in a debate on people who misuse their British passports to go on jihad and then try to come back. I said that there was deep anger among British people about people who do not understand our view that being British is about a love of our history and our country, and, above all, tolerance of all people. The thing about Gibraltar is that it is a wonderfully tolerant place. Over the centuries, it has been a superb melting pot for people of Jewish descent and Christians of all denominations. During the dark years of Spanish fascism, it was a beacon of light and democracy. I do not think that the people of Spain should forget that. I urge colleagues to go to Gibraltar. It is a most moving sight.
A lot of criticism has been made of both Spain and the Foreign Office. As I have been sitting here, I have been trying to understand their positions. I can quite understand that certain people in the Foreign Office take the view that Gibraltar is a very small place and Spain is a very important trading partner that we do not want to antagonise unduly. I suspect that the Foreign Office Minister accepts the argument that when one is dealing with a bully, trying to appease the bully simply makes things worse. The way to resolve this issue in the long term is for the Government, and not just us Back Benchers, to be absolutely robust. The Government say that this is a matter of self-determination, but they should mean it and prove it with their actions. When the previous Government proposed joint sovereignty, as I understand it 99% of people wanted to remain British. This principle is a rock on which we stand. There is no other principle at stake here apart from that of self-determination. I commend the words of the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy), who has now risen very high to lead the Labour party in Scotland. When he was a Minister of the Crown he said:
“the UK Government will never—‘never’ is a seldom-used word in politics—enter into an agreement on sovereignty without the agreement of the Government of Gibraltar and their people. In fact, we will never even enter into a process without that agreement.”
We want to be like a rock in our determination—both Government and Members—to say to Spain that, whatever the provocation, it will not do any good. It could close the border entirely. It has tried it before. It could make the life of its workers coming into Gibraltar a misery. That is not going to work either. Whatever it does or says, and whatever aggravation it causes us in the Council of Ministers, we will remain like a rock in defending the right of people to remain British if they want to do so. They have after all been British for 300 years—a very long time.
We want Ministers like my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill). He made a forthright stand and was prepared to walk out of the Council of Ministers and bring the process to an end. That is the sort of language that is understood. I cannot emphasise this point enough: Spain will only be encouraged by weakness and a belief that, although there are Back Benchers around me who are very strong on this issue, there are other people in the Foreign Office who say that we should make some concessions. I hope, therefore, that when the Minister stands up, he will be robust on this point—as robust as all my colleagues who have spoken.
I have tried to understand the position of the Foreign Office. Now I will try to understand Spain’s position. I can understand that many people in Spain no doubt think it wrong that, as they see it, part of their mainland is British, but these things happen in other parts of the world. Reference has already been made to the Spanish enclaves in north Africa, but leaving that aside, would I really be tremendously agitated, would I lie awake at night, if, under the treaty of Utrecht in 1704, Portland bill had been given to Spain and there were only Spanish people living there and they wanted to remain Spanish? Would I not say to myself, “Well, it’s a long time ago. It’s a part of history. These people have a right to self-determination”? Would I not say to these people, “Well, I’m never going to achieve anything by trying to bully you by closing the border or making life intolerable”? No, I would try to love bomb them, I would try to draw them in, and that is what Spain should do.
I hesitate to give advice to Spain—who am I to give advice to Spain?—but I presume that someone in the Spanish embassy will read our debate and report back to the Government. If, over the years, Spain had kept the border entirely open and tried to encourage as much trade and movement as possible, the whole mood in Gibraltar would be different. I am not saying its people would have wanted to give up their British sovereignty, but look at Monaco! It is a city sate. Nobody in France cares that it is independent. One can drive to and fro between Monaco and the south of France. It is bustling with prosperity. All the regions around it are happy and bustling with prosperity. Instead of La Linea and other places in southern Spain being dead ends, with high unemployment, misery and all the rest of it, it could be an economic boom area. So I hope that someone from the Spanish embassy reads this debate. We do not want to be antagonistic to Spain; we want good relations. We want this to be an opportunity for—dare I use this word?—friendship, for moving things forward and for opening borders and exchanging ideas and views. If Spain were to do that, the whole situation could be transformed.
This debate has been a useful one, but before I sit down, I want to say one last thing. All the nations of Europe, particularly Germany—as my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) said, the Queen is going on a state visit there—proclaim the principle in the EU of the free movement of workers. It is embedded in the EU. It is why we are in the EU. Of course, Spain could knock this ball back into our court, but let us use this argument against it. A nation cannot interfere with the free movement of workers who want to work in Gibraltar. That is the cardinal spirit of the EU, and the Foreign Office has to be absolutely robust with the Commission on this. It is an appalling abuse.
Imagine if we were doing this to Spanish people trying to arrive in Heathrow or tourists arriving at Dover. Imagine the outrage if the Foreign Office retaliated in that way—I am not suggesting it should enflame these matters by doing so. It would be considered an outrage. What is happening on this border, in modern-day Europe, when we are supposed to be part of a European Union and trying to improve relations with each other and improve cross-border trade and movement and all the rest of it, is a throwback to the dark, bad world of the cold war and the 1950s and 1960s. We have to make it clear to the Commission and the Spanish Government that, in the view of the House of Commons, that is simply not acceptable.
I congratulate the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the right hon. Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway), and the rest of the Committee on producing the report that has given rise to this debate, and I thank all Members who have contributed, be they members of the Select Committee or the all-party group on Gibraltar or simply interested in the issue. The Select Committee report really concentrates on three areas: issues at the border; issues affecting British-Gibraltan territorial waters; and the international aspects.
Let me deal with the overall context of this debate, which as hon. Members have mentioned, should be—and could be even more—a good relationship between Britain and Spain. We are fellow members of the EU, fellow members of NATO and allies in many areas. It is therefore tragic that this issue has been rising in importance and has become a real cause of tension.
It makes no sense for the lives of the people of Gibraltar to be deliberately made more difficult as a result of a campaign by Spain to do so. That is wrong in itself and it undermines what is otherwise a strong and long-standing relationship between the UK and Spain.
The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) referred to comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy) when he was a Minister. At that time, my right hon. Friend made it clear that this was a matter not of empire, but of popular will. He said that the constitutional status of Gibraltar would not be changed without the consent of the people of Gibraltar, and that the UK Government would not enter into discussions about that issue without the consent of those people. That was the position then, and it remains the position of my party now. This is the cornerstone of British policy on this issue: it is a position shared by the current Government and it is an important issue in common between us.
Once that is understood by all concerned, there is room for dialogue and co-operation on a number of issues. That was the kind of policy that was in place under the Cordoba agreement and, with good will, it could be resurrected and put in place again. It has to be made clear, however, that it is not the fault of the United Kingdom that the Cordoba agreement has become less effective. That is the result of decisions taken by Spain to adopt a harder line against Gibraltar.
My first question for the Minister—I would like him to address it in his summing up—is where do things stand with the so-called ad hoc discussions between Britain, Gibraltar and Spain? Has there been any indication from the Spanish Government that they are willing to resume these discussions, and do they accept Gibraltar’s place as a full participant in them?
The Select Committee report rightly and strongly criticises the unacceptable and deliberately organised delays at the border crossing, which cause major inconvenience to Gibraltarians, Spanish workers and the huge number of tourists who visit Gibraltar each year. As we have heard, these are causing delays of five, six or sometimes seven hours for cars at the crossing and 90 minutes or more for people crossing on foot. These border issues have had a direct impact on Gibraltar’s tourism trade and constitute an unwarranted and wholly disproportionate barrier to free movement between Gibraltar and Spain.
Let me pick up on another point made by the hon. Member for Gainsborough. Free movement, as we have heard in our broader debates in this House and this country over recent months, is held up as a cardinal principle of membership of the European Union. For a time, it seemed as though the UK Government wanted to compromise the principle of free movement. Many thought that was the implication when the Prime Minister said in his conference speech, “I will sort this issue.” However, his recent speech on EU migration, made just before Christmas, was widely seen as a retreat from that position. It was seen as dealing with issues relating to benefits, and as not compromising the United Kingdom’s attitude to the principle of free movement. If there was any doubt about that position, only yesterday, during his joint press conference with the German Chancellor, the Prime Minister attested to his own belief in, and support for, the principle of free movement. I am sure that that belief and support have been widely welcomed by his colleagues on the Back Benches.
My point to the Minister is that, now that the position has been made clear, he and his colleagues are in a stronger position to make it clear to the Spanish that it is wrong for them to interfere with the free movement of their own citizens who wish to work in Gibraltar, and the ability of the people of Gibraltar to travel freely back and forth across the border.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a very interesting and significant point. I can certainly say that the Liberal Democrat side of the coalition fully supports the free movement of peoples. It is a very important principle, which will benefit the people of Gibraltar in due course.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. A serious aspect of this issue is that when we question such principles, we may sometimes do so without thinking about how they are used by our own citizens who, in possession of a British passport, can move freely—and live and work freely—throughout the European Union, as many do.
Given the principle of free movement, the Government are absolutely within their rights to complain to the European Commission about what is happening on the Gibraltar-Spain border. They have done so before; may I ask the Minister whether they will do so again, stressing the issue of the recent delays and the impact that they are having on the economy and citizens of Gibraltar? Will the Government also call for Commission visits to be made with little or no notice? As we have heard during the debate, the inconveniences and delays can be turned on and off. Obviously, if lengthy notice is given of a visit, it will be easy to step down the pressure and ensure that the inspectors do not see things as they sometimes are. It matters how such visits are conducted, and when they are conducted.
Paragraph 84 of the report suggests that the Government should consider using article 259 of the Lisbon treaty to take Spain to the European Court. May I ask the Minister for his response to that suggestion, which was also mentioned today by the right hon. Member for Croydon South?
The report gives detailed information about the sharply increased number of transgressions of British- Gibraltan territorial waters, which sometimes occur as often as 50 or 60 times a month. Let us be clear about the fact that this is not about free passage; it is about state-owned vessels violating sovereignty, and trying to erode the status and integrity of Gibraltar's territorial waters.
The Committee drew attention to the Government’s delays in lodging protests against those transgressions, fearing that such delays lessened the impact of our complaints and gave the impression that we were merely going through the motions. In their response to the report, the Government said that practice had changed, and that there was now a weekly submission to the Spanish Government. That is to be welcomed on one level, but the fact that the submission must be weekly prompts another question: what further means of reducing the number of transgressions, and thus the need for weekly submissions, have the Government considered?
I am sure the whole House agrees that the Royal Navy’s Gibraltar Squadron and the Royal Gibraltar Police do a difficult and dangerous job, showing admirable restraint when faced with repeated and sometimes dangerous provocation on the seas. The report also welcomes the use of Gibraltar as a staging post for larger Royal Navy vessels.
May I ask the Minister to address the points made by the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), whose military experience is always valuable in these debates? Is it still Ministers’ view that the squadron there has the ships, equipment and manpower to carry out the tasks assigned to it, or is there a need to reassess this in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggested?
The international aspects of this issue have also been mentioned in this debate. I am sure that the Minister agrees that it is unacceptable to use issues like EU aviation policy or the single European sky policy to put further pressure on Gibraltar. Why should not the airport in Gibraltar and the people travelling there have the same freedom and rights as people elsewhere in the EU?
My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) mentioned the resolution in Congress recognising Gibraltar’s right to self-determination. I am sure that the attempts by the Spanish Government, in the letter from the ambassador to Congress, to link their support for the coalition against ISIS with the issue of Gibraltarian self-determination would be rejected by all of us. As democratic countries defending pluralism, there should be no linkage between the battle against the ideology and practices of ISIS and self-determination for the people of Gibraltar.
Is it not also significant that Spain, as in the Madrid bombings of more than a decade ago, has suffered appalling acts of internationally organised terrorism, and it is deplorable that the current Spanish Government have such a short memory of the solidarity that was expressed by the whole world when Spain was attacked?
My hon. Friend makes a strong point. We have seen a great deal of solidarity with the people of France in the last 24 hours against the appalling acts of yesterday. When these things happen, and when democracies are faced with the ideology of those who would kill and attack pluralism and free speech, we do not seek a chain of other issues to connect to them. We do it because we defend our own values, which are under attack from the ideology that led to the bombings in Madrid, which has led to action in this country and drove those responsible for the terrible events in Paris yesterday. On these international issues, will the Minister say what efforts the UK Government are making to make it clear to the international community that Gibraltar’s status must not be used in this way?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a strong point. Through the Cordoba agreement, we had good co-operation on a number of day-to-day issues to make the relationship between Gibraltar and Spain work. It is not down to any change in the UK’s position that that co-operation has been eroded. We need to take the action necessary to get back to that situation.
A few years ago, we had constructive dialogue, and my message today is that we cannot continue with the current situation. The report says that the people of Gibraltar feel “under siege” by the repeated border delays and transgressions of territorial waters. This has not happened by accident, or because of a change in policy by us. It has happened because of a change in policy by Spain. It is hurting Gibraltar, but it is also hurting the people of Spain. It is in the interests of the United Kingdom, of Gibraltar and of Spain to try to get back to the kind of co-operation that we had a few years ago. With good will, that can happen.
I shall end where I began, by saying that we two countries are allies with much in common. We in the UK do not seek to raise tensions with Spain, and that is why restraint has been shown, but it cannot be right for such undue pressure to continue to be placed on Gibraltar. We must get back to the situation that we had a few years ago, because that is in everyone’s interests. The cornerstone of our policy is the wishes of the people of Gibraltar, and that cornerstone remains firmly in place.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway) and the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) for securing this opportunity to debate Gibraltar this afternoon. Before I proceed with my speech, I should like to observe that it seems odd for us to be debating Gibraltar without the presence of the late Jim Dobbin. My hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) rightly paid tribute to Jim, who was chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Gibraltar until his death last year. He was a great supporter of Gibraltar and its people, and he is greatly missed by his friends and colleagues on both sides of the House.
I want to set out the Government’s policy towards Spain on Gibraltar, the developments that have taken place and the progress that has been made since the Select Committee’s report and the Government’s response were produced last year. I shall start by making it clear that the entire Government will continue to be steadfast in our support for Gibraltar and for the sovereignty of the United Kingdom in Gibraltar. The United Kingdom has given a firm commitment that we will never enter into arrangements under which the people of Gibraltar would pass under the sovereignty of another state against their wishes. Furthermore, we have given an assurance that we would not even enter into a process of sovereignty negotiations with which Gibraltar was not content. The wishes of the people of Gibraltar to remain British must be respected, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and others have pointed out. This is a matter of self-determination; at root, it is a matter of democracy at work, and that democratic will must be respected.
As the hon. Member for Ilford South said, there are important common interests between the United Kingdom and the kingdom of Spain. There are strategically significant issues on which we need to work together, ranging from working against terrorism and against the trafficking of narcotics and people to negotiations on international trade, which would enable the peoples of both countries to prosper, as well as on climate change and on innovative technology. It is striking, for example, that the United Kingdom and Spain have been on the same side in European Union discussions on genetically modified technology. That makes it even more a matter of regret that the short-sighted and, frankly, outmoded and anti-democratic attitude that the Spanish Government are taking towards Gibraltar has prevented that bilateral UK-Spain relationship from developing to the extent, or with the warmth, that we would have preferred.
We must be clear that our primary responsibility in respect of Gibraltar is to uphold the security of the territory and defend its international interests. I take that responsibility seriously, as does every Minister in this Government, but when considering what action to take, we must decide what action is most likely to deliver positive results. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Dame Angela Watkinson) said, we are right to be firm in the defence of British sovereignty and the interests of the people of Gibraltar, but we must seek to do so in a way that does not end up inadvertently making their position worse. The mere facts of geography do put Spain in a position to exercise pressure, particularly at the borders.
As part of that work, the Government have sought, under successive Governments in the territory, to work increasingly closely with Her Majesty’s Government of Gibraltar. It is fair to say that this Chief Minister and his predecessor always continue to be firm in standing up for the interests of Gibraltar, but it is also accurate to say that there is a closer relationship now. There is a better habit of working together between the two Governments and of respecting the rules of the 2006 constitution than there has been for many years.
Let me move on to deal with some issues that have been at the centre of today’s debate, starting with EU legislation on aviation. Our starting point is that Gibraltar is, in respect of aviation laws, a part of the European Union. The treaties of the European Union apply to the territory of Gibraltar, except where certain parts are expressly disapplied. Article 355 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union states clearly, in paragraph 3:
“The provisions of the Treaties shall apply to the European territories for whose external relations a Member State is responsible.”
Therefore, in respect of aviation and other important political questions, Gibraltar falls within the European Union. We are therefore more than disappointed—we are angry—that Spain is seeking to secure the suspension of Gibraltar from EU aviation dossiers. We have been very clear with the Commission and with other member state Governments throughout that such attempts by Spain to secure Gibraltar’s suspension are completely unacceptable, and would be illegal and, in our view, a breach of the European Union treaties.
The irony of all this is that several EU legislative measures now in draft would be of particular value to not only the UK aviation industry, but Europe’s aviation industry more generally. The British Air Transport Association estimates that the failure to make progress with draft legislation on air passenger rights is likely to cost British airlines up to £50 million a year—a figure that will be translated into higher air fares for passengers. The European Commission estimates that the single European sky initiative overall may provide up to €5 billion in greater efficiencies for the European aviation sector. Yet legislation in both policy areas—legislation that would bring practical benefits to citizens throughout Europe—is being stalled by Spain’s insistence on seeking to exclude Gibraltar from its application.
Let me deal with the debate at the Transport Council last year and what has happened since. Gibraltar continues to be included in existing single European sky II legislation, as required under the treaties. The Council has not reached full agreement on the replacement SES II measure, and therefore has no coherent position with which to take this issue to trilogue with the European Parliament. Following the Transport Council, which has been mentioned several times in this debate, the Government have engaged at a senior level with both the Italian and now the Latvian presidencies of the European Union and with the European Commission.
We have secured a clear assurance that this legislation will not be taken forward in a form that is unacceptable to us. I was asked whether, in the event of a measure being passed by qualified majority voting that excluded Gibraltar, we would take legal action. I prefer not to speculate too far on legal action in hypothetical circumstances because our objective is that treaties should be respected, and we believe that the Commission, with a duty to uphold the treaties, and other member state Governments who also have such an interest would support us in such an objective. I think that I have made it clear that we would regard the exclusion of Gibraltar as a breach of the article that I mentioned earlier in my remarks.
On unlawful incursions, we have continued to uphold British sovereignty over British Gibraltan territorial waters with the very professional work of the Royal Navy in Gibraltar to challenge incursions as they happen and by issuing swift diplomatic protests. Where incursions have been particularly serious, such as attempts to exercise jurisdiction in British Gibraltan waters by Spanish survey vessels, we have continued to take particularly strong diplomatic and political action. As was said earlier in the debate, the number of times we have summoned the Spanish ambassador is unprecedented for an EU NATO partner. The latest statistics I saw said that we had summoned the Spanish ambassador now more than the ambassador of any other country bar Assad’s Syria.
After one summons in respect of an incursion by a survey vessel, that survey vessel’s time in Gibraltar waters was curtailed and the immediate crisis was ended. The various strong actions that we took—the Spanish Government know that a public summons is a very exceptional action for the UK Government to take—did contribute to making that difference. At that time, there were also direct political representations at ministerial and top official level to Madrid. It is not the case that a summons to an ambassador or a protest by note verbale are necessarily the only actions that we take. Such actions are often accompanied by political representations on the appropriate senior channels.
The number of unlawful incursions dropped from 496 in 2013 to 387 last year—about a 22% reduction—but that still leaves us with an unacceptably high number of incursions. We will continue to make it clear to Spain that, as an EU partner and a NATO ally, the escalation of tensions is bound to impose a cost on the bilateral relationship. The normal practice is that Spanish state vessels are challenged by the Royal Navy, and we follow that up with diplomatic and political protests. It is important to make it clear that, although incursions are a violation of sovereignty, they do not threaten or weaken sovereignty in the sense of undermining the strength of our legal case for sovereignty over those waters. That is what made the survey vessel incursions particularly serious. By purporting to exercise jurisdiction by going about survey work in British Gibraltan territorial waters, those survey vessels were acting in a way which, if unchallenged, could be interpreted as our acknowledging a loss or a diminution of our sovereignty over those waters. That accounts for the difference of the calibration of our response to those incursions compared with some of the others by, for example, Guardia Civil vessels.
I was asked about our assessment of naval resources. The Government’s assessment is that the assets, structure and procedures of the Royal Navy Gibraltar Squadron are commensurate with its tasking, including challenging unlawful maritime incursions within British Gibraltan territorial waters. We regularly assess the naval mission and the assets and people required to deliver it to ensure that its responsibilities can be carried out effectively, and I will certainly not rule out reinforcement of the naval mission or of other military assets in Gibraltar.
In making such a determination we would have to decide how such deployments would make a practical difference for good. For example, I was asked about arrests. The legal reality is that state vessels under international law have sovereign immunity from being boarded. That is a legal reality and a breach would have implications well beyond British Gibraltan issues and one would have to think through the possible consequences for British vessels in other circumstances and other parts of the world. When we discuss these questions in government and carry out these reviews, it is a question not just of which vessels and how many people are involved and so on but of which rules of engagement will apply if one dispatches additional reinforcements. We keep the matter under close watch and I have been having regular conversations with my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces over recent months. The clear principle is that we will not budge in a resolute defence of British sovereignty over those waters.
We have been in close contact with the European Commission on border delays during the past few months and since the publication of the report and the Government’s response last year. At the request of the United Kingdom, the Commission sent a second border monitoring mission to Gibraltar on 2 July and subsequently wrote to both Gibraltar and Spain. The Commission has stated publicly that it has serious concerns about the lack of progress Spain has made in addressing its earlier recommendations and—critically, this has happened since the publication of the two reports—the Commission has said that checks that give rise to waits of several hours to cross the border are disproportionate. We are using the arguments about the freedom of movement of persons with the Commission, other member states and the Government of Spain. Spain has the right to impose such border checks as are proportionate and sufficient to provide safeguards against crime, smuggling and other illegal activities and it is a fact that not just we and the Gibraltan Government but the Commission, as guardian of that freedom of movement right under the treaties, is saying that those checks are disproportionate to the objectives laid down in European law. That is a significant step.
We continue to lobby the Commission on the need to ensure that Spain carries out its recommendations and to make it clear that we expect the Commission to take legal action should there be little movement.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) asked about the possibility of a permanent monitoring force or unannounced inspections, as did the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden). I have already urged the Commission to carry out unannounced inspections and the Government of Gibraltar have made an offer to host a permanent monitoring mission if the new Commission is willing to undertake such an operation.
Spain has now begun construction work at the border area, saying that it is working to improve the system in line with the plans it has submitted to the European Commission, and we have started to see an overall downward trend in the delays, although the level of delays remains unacceptable. We continue to press the Commission to monitor the situation closely.
I do not rule out unilateral action by the United Kingdom under article 259 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union. My caution about this option is that precedent shows that going to the European Court of Justice in such a way is not a swift process. My judgment for now is that we stand the better chance of securing the outcome we want for the people of Gibraltar if we work through pressure on the European Commission, using the arguments about enforcing European law, and seeing that Spain complies with it, than if we take unilateral action, which would put an end to the work in the European institutions to which we have committed ourselves to date.
My right hon. Friend is the embodiment of reasonableness—everything he has said about what his Department is doing is couched in terms of reasonableness and accordance with article this, that or the other—but people are fed up with the United Kingdom and our British overseas territory of Gibraltar being treated in a cavalier fashion by a NATO and European ally. We are looking for a bit of retaliation. To be perfectly candid, what he has done has had no effect. He said that we have reduced the number of incursions by 22%, but we need to send the Spanish defence attaché packing back to Madrid.
My hon. Friend may say that my manner belies this, but I can assure him that I am as fed up and frustrated as him or any of my hon. Friends about the way in which the Spanish Government have acted, but the Government collectively and I feel a grave responsibility to try to secure an outcome that will result in things getting better and not worse for the people of Gibraltar. That is guiding our judgments on precisely which actions we take.
I want to allow time for my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South to respond.
On the economy of Gibraltar and ad hoc talks, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) pointed out that the economy of Gibraltar is flourishing despite all the problems thrown at it by Spain, with growth at about 10.3% per annum. In the Chief Minister’s budget speech last November, he said that those
“numbers will rank Gibraltar as one of the fastest growing economies in the world.”
In the past decade, Gibraltar has modernised and diversified its economy, and attracted new inward investment. It is an example to be admired. We need to be clear that, regardless of the extreme provocation that the Spanish tactics represent, they are not working—they are not stopping Gibraltar continue to grow and prosper. Gibraltar is thriving. I applaud the success and commitment that the Government and the people of Gibraltar have shown in defying the difficult circumstances that surround them.
The truth is that Andalucia, the poorest part of Spain, benefits hugely from the prosperity of Gibraltar, not only through the employment of thousands of Spanish citizens who travel to work in Gibraltar every day of the week, but through the spending power of Gibraltans in the Campo and southern Spain more widely. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough has said, that mutually beneficial economic relationship could be even stronger were Spain to see sense, open the border, and encourage cross-border links and mutual prosperity. That would benefit the people of the Rock and the people of Andalucia. I question why, at a time when about half of young people in Spain are tragically out of work, the Government of Spain resist the opportunity, even in that relatively small way, to enhance growth, prosperity and job creation in one of the most impoverished parts of their country.
There is another way in which the prosperity of Gibraltar could be further enhanced, and that is if our NATO allies were to use the naval facilities in Gibraltar to an even greater extent. As I pointed out, the United States is one of the few allies that does this, largely because if any other ally even thinks about it inside NATO it comes under huge pressure from Spain, even intimidation and threats. Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to tell our NATO allies that they would be extremely welcome to use the naval facilities in Gibraltar, which would provide not only the alliance with something of a boost, but potentially employment and prosperity as well?
I am very happy to do so. Ships from any of our NATO allies would, I know, be more than welcome to call in to Gibraltar. When I went out with the Royal Navy Gibraltar Squadron during my last visit to the Rock, they pointed out to me with pride that they thought there was space in the docks in Gibraltar for one of the new aircraft carriers to moor when she is launched and able to visit that part of the world.
It remains our aim, and that of the Government of Gibraltar, to return to the trilateral forum—the dialogue between the UK, Spain and Gibraltar—which, as the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East said, did enable practical, mutually beneficial discussions between the three parties and helped to enhance trust between Administrations where there had been a lot of mistrust for historical reasons that we all understand. I deeply regret the fact that the Spanish Government have withdrawn formally from the trilateral process.
Despite that, we are working in the meantime on ad hoc talks that would be held at official level as a way of making progress on issues of mutual interest. The Spanish authorities have been involved in those conversations with us. We have at times been hopeful that the talks were about to come to fruition. So far we have not been able to strike that final agreement about the modalities of the talks. I hope that they can take place as soon as possible, because there are important practical questions to do with co-operation against smuggling and co-operation on issues to do with pollution, where I have seen complaints both from Gibraltar about Spain and Spain about Gibraltar. We need the two Governments to sit down and talk to each other, and it is important that the talks include all relevant parties, including the Government of Gibraltar and the Government of Spain.
The Government believe that there can be no compromise on the right of the people of Gibraltar to remain British for as long as they choose so to do. There can be no return to the bilateral discussions between the United Kingdom and Spain over sovereignty that characterised some of the talks in the past. Nor can there be any return to the idea of joint sovereignty, which was entertained by the previous Government in 2001 and 2002. The Government are determined to work to uphold and defend the interests of the people of Gibraltar, their right to live in freedom and prosperity, and it is that principle that will guide every aspect of our policy.
One traditionally at the end of these debates politely says what a great debate it has been. I thank all my colleagues for their contributions because it has been an excellent debate, but I have to confess that I am left with a feeling of disappointment about where we have got to with the debate. Concerns have been expressed about aviation, maritime activities and incursions, and border delays, and while we have been sitting here I hear reports of a delay on the border this afternoon. The Minister was asked whether he would rule out a reduction in the defence force, and while he said he did not rule out an increase, he did not say whether he ruled out a reduction. He was asked by Members on the Government Benches and on the Opposition Front Bench whether he would implement article 259, and he fundamentally said no, he did not accept this. The main reason was the delays, yet we have waited years to reach this point. If the process had started some years ago, perhaps that judgment would now have been reaching a conclusion.
There have been no fewer than nine speeches from the Back Benches today, every one of them calling for more robust action. This debate is taking place on a substantive motion that invites the Government to review their policy towards Gibraltar. I assume that unless the massed ranks turn up, the Government have accepted the motion. I have not heard whether my right hon. Friend intends to review the policy. I have the impression that there is no such review. He is concerned, he is frustrated, he feels thwarted, but there is to be no fundamental review. Hence, I feel that the debate has ended with a degree of disappointment.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House notes the Second Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, Gibraltar: Time to get off the fence, HC 461, and the Government response, Cm 8917; endorses the Committee’s position that the behaviour of the current Spanish Government towards Gibraltar is unacceptable; regrets that trilateral dialogue between the UK, Gibraltar and Spain remains suspended; believes that the time has come for more concerted action; and invites the Government to review its policy towards Spain on Gibraltar.