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Volume 728: debated on Tuesday 14 June 2011


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have made to the Government of Spain regarding the action of the Spanish navy corvette “Atalaya” in British Gibraltar territorial waters on 3 May.

My Lords, our embassy in Madrid made representations to the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Defence while the “Atalaya” incident on 3 May was ongoing, which we believe contributed to the speedy and peaceful resolution of the incident, along with the local Royal Navy response. Our ambassador in Madrid then followed up in person with the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 6 May 2011. The embassy in Madrid dispatched an official written complaint to the ministry on 9 May. The Minister for Europe, my right honourable friend Mr Lidington, also raised it with the Spanish Foreign Minister in the margins of the Council of Europe meeting on 10 and 11 May.

How long will the people of Gibraltar have to tolerate the harassment and intimidation of the Spanish authorities? We should bear in mind that the Government of Gibraltar do not consider that physical confrontation or gunboat diplomacy is the proper or sensible way forward. Can the Minister explain to the House why it took almost an hour for the gunboat HMS “Scimitar” to be deployed to deal with this incident that really was unlawful, provocative and unnecessary by the Spanish navy?

Those are very understandable questions. I will answer the second one first. The response was fairly swift. We have to balance our diplomatic and our military response and we have to live with the reality that while in many fields Spain is our close ally around the world and helping us, on this issue we have our differences. It is a question of balance. As to the longer-term situation, our hope and our intention are rooted in the Cordoba Agreement, the trilateral forum of dialogue, which was set up very successfully under the previous Government. I emphasise that it involves not just Britain and Spain, but Britain, Gibraltar and Spain—it is trilateral. If we can keep that process going, it must be the way forward to end these incursions which, I agree, do create a sense of irritation and seem unnecessary.

Does my noble friend the Minister agree with the statement made by Peter Caruana, the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, that there are absolutely no circumstances in which his Government will permit local waters to be treated,

“other than as waters of exclusive British sovereignty”,

under their exclusive jurisdiction? Will the Government join the Government of Gibraltar in appealing the ruling that their cases against the decision that these waters should become one of Spain’s protected sites under EU law are inadmissible?

We agree with Peter Caruana completely. We also take the view that, as these are British Government sovereign waters, any redesignation is for us and not for Spain.

I declare an interest as a former Governor of Gibraltar. Does the Minister not agree that the trilateral forum, to which he referred, has made a great deal of progress in recent years in bringing, through economic co-operation, benefits to the people of Spain in the region, as well as to Gibraltarians? Does he also agree that, so long as the Spanish Government—a fellow member of NATO and the European Union—behave in this unacceptable fashion, it will not be possible to make further progress?

I would not for a moment dare to disagree with such a distinguished former Governor of Gibraltar. We seek from the Spanish authorities, who are our friends and allies in many parts of the world, an understanding that these matters can be handled by the trilateral forum of dialogue process and that these incursions—this one has a higher profile because it involved the Spanish navy, whereas normally it is the Spanish Guardia Civil which causes these incursions—add nothing to the hopes for resolution. Every time this occurs, we respond with the utmost urgency and the strongest protest that this is not the way forward.

My Lords, I was commander-in-chief when the Royal Marines inadvertently invaded Spain, so I am aware of how complex the waters are around Gibraltar. The Gibraltar Squadron has been reduced to the absolute minimum to do the task that is asked of it. Will the Minister confirm that there will be no further reductions in the size and capability of that squadron?

First, I note, along with your Lordships, that once again your Lordships’ House proves that it has massive expertise in every subject. We keep the naval response constantly under review. We will ensure that we have the means for an appropriate response, balanced with a diplomatic assessment of the situation, and we will make sure that that continues. There will be no question but that these incursions—if they have to continue, and I hope that they do not—will be responded to with the utmost speed both by the Royal Navy and by diplomatic means.

Did we receive an apology, and what assurances did we get from Spain that this would not occur again? The noble Lord says that the Royal Navy will be ready but will it be ready immediately? The last time it was launched, the vessel in question had departed.

I am not quite sure that that last point is correct. I think that the vessel was seen off. It was warned and departed as the warning came—it all happened simultaneously. As to a response from Madrid, I do not think that there has been an apology or a reassurance that it will not happen again. However, there has certainly been a recognition that this was an unfortunate incident which they do not want to see recur. I would not put it higher than that. We have not got there yet.

My Lords, I can only declare that I have visited Gibraltar. Does the Minister agree that, however provocative this incident, it is within the context of a much improved relationship with Spain on the Rock? However, does he also agree that there is now perhaps a danger that, if there were a change of government, there would be a rather more populist and nationalist attitude to the Rock on the part of Spain, and that it is very important to improve the hotlines and ensure that there are protocols for better co-operation and understanding if such an unfortunate incident arises in future?

That is very wise. One move that we have been anxious to make is to get back into regular meetings of the trilateral forum, which were interrupted before by concerns in Gibraltar. On his recent visit, my right honourable friend the Minister for Europe certainly succeeded in establishing that we should go forward with these ministerial meetings in a sensible way. The hope, although it has not yet been satisfied on the Spanish side, is that there will be a ministerial meeting of the Cordoba agreement group—the trilateral group—before the summer is out.