ROCK OF CONTENTION

Interior minister: “Gibraltar cannot be a tobacco-smuggling frontier”

Fernández Díaz says Spain has “complete legitimacy” to control border

British PM asks EU to send in observers “urgently”

Spanish Interior Minister Jorge Fernández Díaz on Friday said Spain had “complete legitimacy and complete right” to effect the police checks it is carrying out on the frontier with Gibraltar.

He emphasized that the increased controls, which have been causing heavy delays for vehicles going into and out of the British colony, were taking place because of the increase in the amount of contraband tobacco coming out of the Rock, adding that they were “random, legal and proportionate, precisely in defense of the law.”

“The Gibraltar frontier cannot be the frontier of tobacco smuggling,” the minister stated.

Speaking to the press in the Navarre town of Fitero, Fernández Díaz said Gibraltar “last year imported 140 million packs of tobacco,” underlining that it was “evident” that the “population of the colony, or visitors and tourists, did not smoke that amount.”

“We are conscious that the controls are harming citizens and we regret it a lot, but those citizens who feel harmed must understand that the delays and the controls at the border are being done precisely because of the unfairness with which the Gibraltarian authorities are acting,” Fernández Díaz said.

“If they dedicated themselves to combating the illegal smuggling of tobacco across the border or money laundering, citizens would surely not be suffering this extra responsibility that translates into the extra controls the Spanish authorities are having to carry out in defense of the law.” The minister said tobacco smuggling across the frontier with the Rock was growing exponentially, noting that in the first seven months of this year the Civil Guard had seized the same number of cigarette packs it did in the whole of 2012.

Citizens must understand the delays are because of the unfair behavior of Gibraltar"

For its part, Britain continues to maintain that Spain’s increased border checks are not legitimate. In a telephone conversation with European Commission president José Manuel Durão Barroso on Friday, UK Prime Minister David Cameron asked the EU to send observers to the Gibraltar frontier as a matter of urgency.

Brussels has already announced its intention to mediate in the dispute between Gibraltar and Spain in a meeting after the summer, as well as to send a “technical mission” to observe the border controls, but Cameron now wants the observers to be sent immediately.

Barroso on Friday gave the British prime minister his guarantee that he would not hesitate in imposing EU law when it came to resolving the dispute over the border checks. At the same time Downing Street also said it was gathering proof to demonstrate that the Spanish controls at the Gibraltar frontier were “illegitimate.”

“We believe that the European Commission, as guardian of the treaties, should investigate the issue,” a British government spokesman said.

London believes that the checks run against the right to freedom of movement. It also considers them “politically motivated” and “disproportionate” — two accusations which are difficult to prove given Spain’s justification that they are motivated by its detection of a suspicious increase in the amount of contraband tobacco coming in from the Rock.

Diplomatic tensions between Spain and the UK over Gibraltar have increased in recent weeks. After months of controversy over the activities of Spanish fishermen in waters that Gibraltar considers its own, the Rock replied by dropping scores of concrete blocks into the Bay of Algeciras to prevent them from trawling the seabed.

In turn Spain responded by ramping up controls at the border between the two territories, leading to long delays for those entering and leaving the British territory.

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