Gibraltar tensions soar as UK threatens legal action over border checks and HMS Illustrious sets sail for Med
Downing Street said it was considering the ‘unprecedented step’ against Spain
The Government today threatened legal action against Spain over the “politically motivated” imposition of extra checks on the frontier with Gibraltar.
Diplomatic tensions between the two countries looked set to soar after Downing Street said it was considering the “unprecedented step” against Madrid.
Last week Number 10 claimed David Cameron had secured a promise from his Spanish counterpart, Mariano Rajoy, to scale down the border controls. The Spaniards immediately contradicted Britain’s version of events.
With little sign of an early resolution to the stand-off, there were reports yesterday of drivers facing a wait of up two hours to pass into the UK overseas territory.
A Downing Street spokesman said: “Clearly the Prime Minister is disappointed by the failure of Spain to remove the additional border checks this weekend. We are now considering what legal action is open to us.
“This would be an unprecedented step so we want to consider it carefully before a making a decision to pursue.”
He said: “We feel these delays are politically motivated and totally disproportionate”.
Ministers were discussing whether to pursue the issue as a “matter of urgency” with the European Union, the spokesman added.
The move comes amid an escalating row over the construction of an artificial reef by the Gibraltarian authorities which Spain claims will destroy fishing in the area.
Madrid responded by beefing up border controls, leading to lengthy queues, and suggesting that a 50 euro (£43) fee could be imposed on every vehicle entering or leaving the British overseas territory through the fenced border with Spain.
Earlier, thousands of Royal Navy personnel set sail for a training deployment in the Mediterranean.
The helicopter carrier HMS Illustrious left Portsmouth Naval Base, Hampshire, and will join the navy flagship HMS Bulwark, which has sailed from Devonport for the Cougar ’13 operation.
Also sailing tomorrow will be HMS Westminster, a type 23 frigate, which will visit Gibraltar en route.
Other UK ships taking part are another type 23 frigate, HMS Montrose, and six Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) ships.
The vessels will be taking part in what defence officials stressed was a long-scheduled deployment in the Mediterranean and the Gulf.
But London mayor Boris Johnson said the deployment should send a clear signal to the Spanish, and he accused Madrid of reverting to the blockade tactics of the Franco era.
“Perhaps it really is a coincidence – as the Foreign Office claims – that we have just sent a fleet of warships to Gibraltar,” he wrote in an article for the Daily Telegraph.
“Maybe it’s just a fluke that HMS Illustrious is about to bristle into view on the southern coast of Spain, complete with thousands of Royal Marines and other elite commando units.
“But I hope not. I hope that one way or another we will shortly prise Spanish hands off the throat of our colony, because what is now taking place is infamous.”
Commodore Paddy McAlpine, Commander UK Task Group, said Cougar ’13 was an opportunity to enhance the Navy’s ability to “operate and project power as a task group at range”.
“In so doing, it will also remind interested domestic and international parties of the enduring utility, employability and interoperability of the Royal Navy,” he said.