Sir Graham Watson: Gibraltar will always have the Lib Dems’ backing

GibraltarOn Sunday 1 September, I was treated to what many of my constituents face on a daily basis, a border queue. I got off rather lightly with 90 minutes. Many Gibraltarians who dare to cross the frontier face delays of over four hours. But they are a hardy lot. They survived eighteen years under Franco with the border closed.

In December 2011, the Liberal Party of Gibraltar, our sister party on the Rock, was elected to office in coalition with the Gibraltar Socialist Labour Party. At about the same time, a general election in Spain saw a moderate Socialist government replaced by the nationalist Popular Party, the party of former dictator General Franco.

Since this time, Gibraltar has been harassed by Spain from land and sea. Stringent border delays continue to escalate on the spurious allegation that Gibraltar is a centre for smuggling and money laundering. And regular incursions into Gibraltar’s waters by Spanish patrol boats are claimed to be justified by the recent designation of a Special Area of Conservation for which the waters are listed as belonging to Spain.

Smoking in Gibraltar is cheap. By the border, bicycles and cars rust in the Mediterranean sun, confiscated by the Guardia Civil. Whilst these provide some evidence of smuggling, the European Commission has praised the Gibraltar government’s efforts to stamp it out. Instead of targeting their efforts on suspected smugglers, the Guardia Civil have imposed checks on all those crossing the border. The controls are surprisingly light at the time Spanish residents cross the border to go to work in Gibraltar and unjustifiably heavy when, for example, British Royals or government ministers visit the Territory.

The Gibraltar government argues that the current stringent checks are a politically motivated response to the sinking of an artificial reef earlier this summer. Similar reefs have been sunk off Spain’s coast for the same purposes of marine ecosystem regeneration.

Disputes such as this have historically been resolved on the battlefield. Today, we can use the European Commission and the European Courts of Justice to resolve them. I have been pressing the EU route and I was pleased when the UK government followed my advice and when Commission President Jose Manual Barroso accepted calls for border monitors. If border monitors find that the Spanish are in breach of the EU treaties, then action can be taken through the European Court of Justice, leading to big fines. I doubt we will soon see the Spanish around the table with Gibraltar to combat smuggling or illegal fishing, but I hope that a resolution to the hours and hours of delays at the border can be found.

Gibraltar is a thriving economy with almost full employment. Spain benefits from this prosperity, through jobs and trade. Nearby towns in the Andalusia region would lose out to further restrictions to the rock. So why doesn’t the Spanish government listen?

Perhaps they hope that London will one day cede sovereignty of the Rock to Madrid. The clear impediment to this is the visceral opposition of Gibraltar’s people. Like the Catalans and the Basques, they know the Castilian nationalists all too well.

The worst element in all this is the whipping up of hatred in mainland Spain against Gibraltar. The outrageous language of Spain’s foreign minister and some of his Popular Party colleagues has led to anti-Gibraltar graffiti, to Gib-registered cars being torched and the emergence of a climate of fear among my constituents. That is why I have redoubled my efforts in Brussels to bring the weight of the EU to bear.

Gibraltar will always have the Liberal Democrats’ backing. With the great work that has been done for decades by Simon Hughes MP and others at Westminster and UK Lib Dem MEPs in Brussels and Strasbourg, calm heads can prevail when it comes to the right to self-determination.

* Sir Graham Watson was a MEP from 1994 to 2014. He led the EP's Liberal Democratic Group from 2002 to 2009 and presided the ALDE Party from 2011 to 2015. He is now a Member of the European Economic and Social Committee.

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  • “I was treated to what many of my constituents face on a daily basis, a border queue. I got off rather lightly with 90 minutes.”

    Did you try to get on a ferry to Calais?

  • nuclear cockroach 10th Sep '13 - 2:04pm

    Why not join Schengen? The Spanish wouldn’t be allowed any frontier control then, that would snooker them.

  • Pete Kercher 10th Sep '13 - 2:36pm

    Your commenter who calls him/herself nuclear cockroach has a point, Graham: the Gibraltar government could call Madrid’s bluff in a major way by joining Schengen. Of course that would mean imposing border controls between Gibraltar and the UK, at least until the UK itself were also to join Schengen (I suppose that is unlikely as long as UKIP sets the agenda for the UK’s European policy as it does now), but then there are less UK-Gib border crossings per day than Spain-Gib.

  • Helen Dudden 10th Sep '13 - 6:57pm

    We should join Schengen.

    Graham, I feel that to work together for a better EU makes sense.

    You have known me for many years, and I am sure that you will agree, I don’t take no very easily.

  • Morwen Millson 10th Sep '13 - 9:12pm

    We flew into Gibraltar in June and crossed the border on foot to pick up a hire car in La Linea as we always do. Not only were our passports not even glanced at, but the customs hall was completely empty! Just a couple of weeks later, all hell broke loose. My husband was recently asked by a colleague for a car hire recommendation, as their usual hire company told them they would have to hire a car in Gib and drive across the border.

    We have a house in Sotogrande and our agent tells us that there have been problems for several months for the many British and other European citizens who live in Spain and drive to work in Gib every day. Spain is doing everything it can to stop this, effectively forcing families to take up residence in Gib, and, in the process seriously damaging the local economy of that area of southern Spain.

    Keep at it Graham.

  • Kenneth Okpeki 10th Sep '13 - 11:35pm

    From what we can see,when you want to pass the Spanish border,get there before everyone else.Kenneth Okpeki an ex-student of the London School of Management in the United Kingdom

  • Thanks for the detailed explanation, Graham. However, even if “artificial reefs” have been sunk elsewhere in Spanish waters, was it really necessary to do it here? Was it not inevitable that the Spanish government – especially this Spanish government – would interpret this as an attack on their fishing activity?

  • Julian Tisi 11th Sep '13 - 9:19am

    Thanks for the article, Graham. Keep it up!

    Regarding the sinking of reefs, the Gibraltar government have done nothing wrong. The reef is clearly in Gibraltar waters, being just off the airport and outside the ridiculously long harbour wall the Spanish have built to effectively mark a water “border”. And as Graham says, Spain have sunk similar reefs for similar reasons.

  • Helen Dudden 12th Sep '13 - 6:55am

    There is one point I would like to add. Do we wish to resolve differences or make them worse?

    It is easy with arguments to do the pay back to those concerned, the argument gets fed and ends up much larger than
    it started.

  • Oliver Leonard 21st Mar '16 - 9:19pm

    I’m not sure if it’s possible but is Gibraltar allowed to join Schengen without the rest of the United Kingdom joining it as I don’t think the UK joining would please many people due to our already strained relations with the EU. and the various mixed views that people have on the EU in the UK. however Gibraltar doesn’t appear to have any EU problems at all and would be better off in Schengen if it’s possible for a separate deal for Gibraltar only. It’s something for the EU to decide and something I think most people would favour.

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