August 9, 2013
Spain is prepared to take "all legal measures" against Gibraltar unless there are peace talks, its prime minister has said.
Mariano Rajoy said he did not want the dispute to "go further", after a spat about fishing escalated into a full-blown diplomatic row with Britain.
He called for four-way discussions between Spain, the UK, Gibraltar and the government of the Andalucia region in an effort to resolve tensions.
However, the Spanish premier warned that without talks he is still considering punitive measures against the Rock, which may include charging to cross the border.
Downing Street said it was aware of Rajoy's comments but there was no date for discussions. Rajoy made the fresh threat the day after Britain said warships would visit the Rock in a "routine visit".
It also follows Downing Street's claim that David Cameron had won concessions from Rajoy on the phone this week, including a pledge that Spain is "committed to reducing measures" at the border with Gibraltar.
The controversy began when Gibraltar started to build an artificial reef that Spain claims will block its fishing boats. This led Madrid to bring in extra border checks that have caused lengthy queues between the two territories.
Then Spain threatened to introduce extra fees for crossing the border, investigate the tax affairs of Gibraltarians living in Spain and restrict airspace for flights going to Gibraltar's airport.
After meeting Spain's King Juan Carlos in Mallorca, Rajoy made it clear that the dispute is not yet at an end.
"I hope that this doesn't go any further, but it's clear that Spain has to defend its national interest and that's what we're going to do," Rajoy said.
"Our priority is to talk through the issues, to negotiate and reach an agreement that is sensible and civilised."
Downing Street insists the fleet of warships setting off for Gibraltar on Monday are nothing to do with the controversy. The Ministry of Defence said they are simply due to stop off at the territory on their way to naval exercises in the Mediterranean.
No 10 said the force was a long-planned routine exercise and was not linked to the fierce diplomatic row over the disputed territory. But it disclosed that David Cameron had warned Rajoy about the warships in a telephone conversation on Wednesday during which they discussed the escalating dispute. Rajoy expressed no hostility, the prime minister's spokesman said.
The naval force, led by HMS Illustrious and including two frigates, will sail for the Mediterranean on Monday at the start of a four-month deployment. Three ships including the frigate HMS Westminster are due to stop in the port later this month.
The visit was announced two days after Gibraltar's chief minister, Fabian Picardo,demanded that warships be sent to stop Spanish incursions into the Rock's territorial waters. On Thursday, Picardo told the Telegraph that the territory would be delighted to welcome the Royal Navy.
The Spanish have been delaying traffic on the border of the British territory as a reprisal for Gibraltar dropping concrete blocks in the sea to create an artificial reef, which Spanish fishermen say has destroyed their livelihood.
"The prime minister has previously demonstrated his commitment to Gibraltar and its people, and it was entirely in character for him to want to act personally following the latest escalation by Spain," said the Gibraltar government.
"That this has been followed up by a call from the foreign secretary, William Hague, to the Spanish foreign minister [José García] Margallo himself – the second such call in just over 72 hours – demonstrates the seriousness with which the UK and Gibraltar governments regard the threats that have been made."
There was no sign of a reduction in the border delays and the British government acknowledges the dispute is not going to be settled in the short term. Cameron told Rajoy in the call on Wednesday that the delays on the border were unacceptable. No 10 initially claimed Rajoy had promised to ensure the delays would be eased but queues instead worsened, at one point reaching four hours in the summer heat.
A statement by Madrid made no reference to concessions and said the measures were "perfectly within the Schengen borders code" on free movement.