Downing Street has declined to rule out the use of retaliatory political action against Spain if its diplomatic row with Britain over Gibraltar is not resolved quickly.
Three Royal Navy ships, led by frigate HMS Westminster, arrived at the British Overseas Territory yesterday, the day after more than 40 commercial Spanish boats staged a protest over the reef which sparked the disagreement and led to retaliatory delays for Britons at the border.
It has been reported that UK officials are examining the potential to disrupt Spain’s tourist industry, and may block its policy initiatives at the EU.
Pressed on the potential for such action, a No. 10 spokesman told reporters: “Our preference here is to resolve this via political means and through dialogue with the Spanish government. We clearly want to reach a quick resolution which is acceptable and brings an end to these totally disproportionate border checks.”
Type 23 frigate HMS Westminster is now in Gibraltar along with the Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships Mounts Bay and Lyme Bay for a scheduled visit ahead of the Cougar ‘13 exercises in the Mediterranean.
Cougar ‘13 is a long-planned deployment involving four Royal Navy warships, the lead commando group from 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines and elements of naval air squadrons. The operation also includes the helicopter carrier HMS Illustrious and the navy’s flagship HMS Bulwark.
A Spanish Guardia Civil patrol boat passed close to the military area of Gibraltar harbour not long after HMS Westminster arrived yesterday morning.
The Spanish boat passed outside the harbour walls in Gibraltar Bay before speeding off when a police launch approached it.
Sunday’s protest prompted calls for renewed efforts, involving the European Union, to solve the diplomatic dispute which has seen Madrid introduce additional checks at the border in protest, leaving workers and tourists facing hours in queues. The No. 10 spokesman said Prime Minister David Cameron wanted the EU to send monitors to the border “urgently”.
Julie Girling, Conservative MEP for the South West and Gibraltar, is in the territory for talks with local politicians.
“I think what the people of Gibraltar have really appreciated with the arrival of Westminster today, and the support ships, is that it is flying the flag saying ‘we British people support the Gibraltarians, we are not abandoning you’, and that has been very, very welcome,” she said.
Locals waving Union flags gathered on the quayside to watch the grey warship make its way into the harbour, where they cheered it in. It was followed in later in the morning by the two RFA support vessels.
Andrea Jones, 46, who works for a gaming firm and has lived in Gibraltar for 12 years, said the frigate’s arrival was “a two- fingered salute towards Spain”.
The Spaniards made an illegal incursion into British waters around the rock on Sunday, led by a group of around 38 fishing boats plus a small number of pleasure craft.
They were “corralled” by Royal Gibraltar Police, customs and military vessels close to an artificial reef created by the government of the British Overseas Territory.
Tensions between Britain and Spain over Gibraltar’s dropping of concrete blocks to the sea floor, creating a reef, have escalated during the last fortnight.
Spain says it was done to disrupt its fishing fleet, while Gibraltar says it was necessary to protect local fish stocks and that only one Spanish vessel was fishing the area before the reef was created.