GIBRALTAR RIFT

Standoff between Civil Guard and Rock officials over trawlers sparks new tensions

Royal Navy and Spanish security vessels called out as fishermen return to disputed waters

A Spanish fishing vessel in La Línea de la Concepción's harbour this week. / A. CARRASCO RAGEL (EFE)

Authorities in Gibraltar, including the Royal Navy, were called out Wednesday night when four Spanish trawlers began fishing in waters the British colony claims as its own territory.

Several Civil Guard vessels also rushed to the scene to ensure that the confrontation would not escalate, and escorted the boats away from the disputed waters.

On Thursday, Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo asked the fishermen of La Línea, who have been demanding their rights to trawl in the waters surrounding the British territory, to resume talks with representatives from the chief minister’s office, which they had been holding earlier in the week. After a three-hour meeting on Tuesday, the fishermen and Gibraltar authorities agreed to create a working group to study the environmental impact caused by the trawlers’ nets in the waters surrounding the colony. Britain claims three miles of territorial sea around Gibraltar, which Spain does not recognize.

British Foreign Minister William Hague is expected to reaffirm Britain’s sovereignty claim over the waters when he meets with his Spanish counterpart next week in London, diplomatic sources say.

Those who are orchestrating these dangerous confrontations need to come to their sense"

But in Gibraltar, Chief Minister Fabian Picardo called Wednesday night’s incident “a direct provocation.”

“Those who are orchestrating these dangerous confrontations need to come to their senses and accept the challenge, once and for all, to litigate their claims to our territory in the relevant international tribunals established for that purpose in the 21st century, and not put people’s safety and security at risk trying to advance their position out at sea as if in the 18th century,” he said in a statement.

Tensions between Spain and Britain have also heightened over Prince Edward’s planned visit to Gibraltar next month as part of Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee ceremonies.

The agreement hammered out on Tuesday calls for a mixed working group with five members appointed by Picardo’s government and another five chosen by the fishermen who work in the zone. The panel would have 60 days to send their recommendation to the government of the British enclave. Since 1991, Picardo says, Gibraltar has prohibited the use of fishing nets in waters under its jurisdiction. He says he has no objections to fishermen from Algeciras and La Línea using the long-line method.

Nevertheless, the Spanish government claims that following these rules would be an automatic de facto recognition of Gibraltar’s claim to the waters.

The sea around Gibraltar and its control have long been a matter of diplomatic tensions. Spain points to the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713, by which the Rock of Gibraltar was ceded to Britain, and which only recognizes entry to the port of the enclave.

In a news broadcast on Tuesday, the Spanish agriculture, food and environment minister, Miguel Arias Cañete, called on the British government to agree to talks and to put an end to this “pointless confrontation.”

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