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Volume 739: debated on Monday 16 July 2012


Tabled By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what has been their response to incursions into the British sovereign waters off Gibraltar by the Spanish Guardia Civil.

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Hoyle, and with his permission, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, the Royal Navy challenges Guardia Civil and other Spanish state vessels whenever they make unlawful maritime incursions into British Gibraltar territorial waters. In such cases, we also make formal protests to the Spanish Government through diplomatic channels, making clear that such behaviour represents an unacceptable violation of British sovereignty.

My Lords, the Minister is well aware that in spite of the fact that Gibraltar territorial waters are recognised by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, there has been a considerable increase in incursions by Guardia Civil vessels into Gibraltar territorial waters. There were none in 2009, eight in 2010, 280 in 2011 and well over 160 this year. In light of that escalation, and to avoid any further increase, will the Government join the Gibraltar Chief Minister, the honourable Fabian Picardo, in challenging our good ally Spain to refer the matter for determination by the International Court of Justice or by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea? Otherwise, on behalf of Gibraltar, will we take the matter to those international courts ourselves for final determination?

The noble Lord is quite right about the increase in the number of these incursions. The problem about referring the issue to the International Court of Justice is that of course it requires all involved parties to agree to it, which does not appear to be in prospect. We believe that the right way forward is the one we are adopting, which is that the response should be measured, we should continue to press the Spanish Government very carefully and there is no point raising the temperature or tension in these matters, as they can be resolved by discussion. We would like of course to go back to the trilateral talks based on the Cordoba agreement, if we could. They were progressing, but that route, too, seems blocked. The way forward is, as I have described, to insist that these are unlawful maritime incursions and should not be accepted. We raise them in the strongest possible terms with the Spanish Government at every opportunity.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that some 12 years ago, when I was governor of Gibraltar, we faced similar problems, and that there are lessons to be learnt from all this? In welcoming the setting up of the working party by the Government of Gibraltar to work with Spanish fisherman and environmental experts to try to find a way forward, will the Minister nevertheless assure the House that the British Government are providing whatever naval presence is needed to uphold sovereignty?

Yes, I can give that assurance, and there have been no complaints from the Gibraltar Government about the lack of adequate resources. There is the Gibraltar squadron, which has two patrol craft, some rigid-framed inflatable boats and crews. The responses they work out can be preceded by radio warnings, but they are effective and will continue, so I can give that assurance.

My Lords, has the increase in these incursions not really arisen since the European Union decided that, as regards environmental matters, the waters around Gibraltar were Spanish and not British? Is this being challenged and are the Government doing anything to expedite the court case?

I am not sure that that is the right analysis. That case, which continues, is about how these waters are designated as a European Union special site of community importance, and it is being disputed. The immediate pattern seems to have been that with the new Gibraltar Government the informal agreement which allowed Spanish fishermen certain opportunities to fish, entirely on an informal basis, has ended and the resultant tensions have been fostered by the fact that Spanish fishermen now come accompanied by Guardia Civil vessels, which obviously raise the tension further. That is the cause of the difficulty now. The other issue that the noble Lord raised continues to be disputed vigorously because these are British sovereign waters and any designation as an EU site will be the responsibility of the British and Gibraltar Governments.

My Lords, will the Minister tell the House what other steps are being taken to resolve practical problems between Spain and Gibraltar?

There are a range of detailed practical problems that can and should be arranged and should be discussed. We would like to see a move back to the previous trilateral arrangements, which included the British Government, the Spanish Government and Gibraltar and were a good forum for making progress. At the moment, that is not encouraged and does not seem to be favoured by the Spanish Government, so I have to report that the linkages to deal with these smaller matters are really either informal or in small groups. No general strategy is being successfully carried forward, and we would like to see one developed.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that this escalation in events is quite worrying and that while one understands efforts to defuse the situation, we need to do more to get the message across that this is unacceptable? We might otherwise find ourselves in the position we were in on 15 July 1798, when HMS “Lion” took on four Spanish frigates, capturing one and sending the rest running—a position we would not like to be in again.

The noble Lord is absolutely right that it could develop seriously, but from the point of view of the Spanish fishing community, the Spanish Government, ourselves or the people of Gibraltar there is no interest in escalating this to the point of any kind of physical action. Therefore, we think that dialogue is the best way forward. We have good relations with the Spanish Government. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary met the Spanish Foreign Secretary on 29 May and discussed it, and we think this is the right channel through which to develop a better dialogue and to meet all these detailed issues, including the fishing incursions. Once we have solved them, we would take a broader view about whether Spain is going to co-operate closely with us and Gibraltar on the kind of trilateral regime we had before, but the first thing is to solve the fishing dispute.

My Lords, what is done with the vessels that are caught illegally operating in Gibraltarian waters? Are they destroyed?

They are escorted and moved out of British sovereign waters by our patrol craft. They are asked to go and they go.