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Spain threatens legal action over Gibraltar housing project

The Foreign Ministry has sent a letter to London complaining about a scheme that involves land reclamation in disputed waters

View of the future housing development.
View of the future housing development. EFE

The Spanish Foreign Ministry has sent a letter to UK authorities threatening legal action over a housing project in Gibraltar.

Madrid sees a violation of the sovereignty principle because the Hassan Centenary Terraces project involves “illegal land reclamation in waters under Spanish sovereignty,” said a ministry source.

Spain could file a complaint with the European Commission, and even turn to the European Court of Justice

The complaint was issued on February 19, and it deepens the diplomatic malaise that began in October 2017, when authorities in Gibraltar came up with an affordable housing plan on the east side of the Rock involving six high-rise towers with 665 housing units.

The Spanish ministry, which sent a diplomatic note to the UK in 2017 but got no satisfactory reply, now talks about “new information” suggesting that the the housing scheme is still underway, and calling for “these operations to be halted.”

If Spain’s request goes unheeded again, the government will consider the possibility of “launching whatever legal action it deems most appropriate to defend its position,” said the same source.

The objection was expressed through a “Note Verbal,” a form of written diplomatic communication between states.

Treaty of Utrecht

The Spanish executive backs up its complaint with the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht by which Spain ceded the territory of Gibraltar to Britain. Spain says the treaty only contemplated the city, the castle, the port and the fortifications, but not the isthmus where the Gibraltar airport was later built or the adjacent waters. Spain rejects British sovereignty over that portion of the territory, and says that the project additionally falls within a EU Special Protection Area (SPA) for natural habitats.

The isthmus separating Gibraltar from La Línea de la Concepción.
The isthmus separating Gibraltar from La Línea de la Concepción.

This suggests that Spain could file a complaint with the European Commission, and even turn to the European Court of Justice. But Brexit casts doubt over that procedure, because if Britain leaves the EU on March 29 – although it seems increasingly likely that this date could be pushed back – it will no longer be automatically accountable to the European justice system. At that point, Spain could resort to an international tribunal, such as the one at The Hague, although such an escalation seems unlikely.

Brexit

This latest confrontation comes at a crucial moment because of the UK’s imminent departure from the EU, which also means that Gibraltar will leave despite the fact that Gibraltarians overwhelmingly supported the remain option. This gives Spain an edge to make demands in exchange for maintaining the British link with its European partners.

So far, Spain has managed to include a specific protocol on Gibraltar in the UK withdrawal agreement, and it has secured a veto right over the application in Gibraltar of any future deal between Brussels and London.

Four bilateral memorandums of understanding have also been signed on the thorniest issues, including the environment, taxes and land reclamation. Gibraltar’s strategy of artificially gaining land from the sea has been a point of contention with Madrid for years. Environmental groups have also denounced the practice on numerous occasions.

English version by Susana Urra.

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