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Amid diplomatic fallout after Eastern beach incident, stark differences but caution too against treaty backdrop

Eastern beach, where the incident took place. Photo by Johnny Bugeja

Last Thursday’s dramatic events on Eastern beach have created diplomatic tension at a delicate juncture in talks for a UK/EU treaty on the Rock’s post-Brexit relations with the bloc, but public statements over the weekend suggest that, despite starkly opposed views on the incident, all sides appear keen to avoid derailing more than two years of complex negotiations to secure a deal.

On Sunday Spain’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Jose Manuel Albares, said his government would remain “inflexible” in defending Madrid’s position on the sovereignty of the waters around the Rock.

But he insisted too on Spain’s continued “flexibility” to finalise an agreement for the Rock’s post-Brexit relations with the European Union.

Mr Albares was speaking during an interview on Antena 3 where he was quizzed on what impact last Thursday’s incident on Eastern beach could have on ongoing negotiations for a UK/EU deal on Gibraltar.

Earlier in a joint statement last Friday, the Governor of Gibraltar, Vice Admiral Sir David Steel, and Chief Minister Fabian Picardo deplored the “unacceptable lawlessness” displayed by a group of smugglers who violently set upon two Spanish officers, both of whom were injured.

But they also condemned the presence and actions of the Spanish officers, who fired warning shots as they were attacked on Eastern beach, as a “gross violation” of British sovereignty.

They said the UK Government would demand answers from Spain as it prepared a diplomatic response to the events.

On Friday night, Spain's Ministry for Foreign affairs condemned the attack on the Spanish customs agents and said it "categorically rejects the terms" of the statement issued in Gibraltar, "as well as the claims of alleged British sovereignty over the territory and waters of Gibraltar contained within it".

Speaking on Antena 3 on Sunday, Mr Albares again underlined Spain’s “complete and emphatic” rejection of “the position set out by British authorities in Gibraltar” in Friday’s statement.

“And I certainly emphatically reject that supposed British sovereignty over the waters where this incident took place, which are Spanish waters,” he said.

But he added: “One thing has to be clear.”

“Spain has great flexibility to reach a deal on which we are already in agreement on many points, even though nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”

“We are flexible to reach that area of shared prosperity for Gibraltar and the 270,000 Spaniards who live in the Campo de Gibraltar.”

“But we are totally inflexible when it comes to the defence of sovereignty and the interests of Spain.”

On Friday both the UK and Gibraltar governments were clear that, despite the injuries and the unsavoury criminality that led to them, the presence of Spanish officers on a beach in Gibraltar would not be tolerated.

Spanish law agencies can ask Gibraltar law enforcement to continue a chase into Gibraltar but "it would appear that they did not do so in this case,” the statement said.

But the confusion surrounding the events means authorities here have so far adopted a cautious approach as they await more information from Spanish authorities.

The response is being coordinated with senior officials at the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in London and with the UK Ambassador to Spain, Hugh Elliott.

In Friday’s joint statement, the Governor and the Gibraltar Government said the incident required “careful consideration” as to “the nature and level” of the UK’s diplomatic response to Spain.

UK officials have contacted their Spanish counterparts to seek an explanation of what the joint statement described as a “violation of the sovereignty of Gibraltar” before making a final determination of what action to take.

Of particular concern is that several shots appear to have been fired by the Spanish officers on a beach that has built-up areas nearby, something the Chief Minister described as “reckless”.

“We need to certify what we have seen [in videos circulated on social media last week] and have it confirmed by the RGP and Customs and other ballistics experts,” Mr Picardo told GBC.

“We have initial information. Of course, these things now have to be properly certified, but to discharge a weapon in an area which has residential blocks of that sort, into the air, that is to say in the angle where people are in their homes sleeping with their children, I cannot imagine anything more reckless or negligent.”

But with the incident and the diplomatic fallout coming during the end stage of ongoing treaty talks, the Chief Minister was cautious too.

Strengthening law enforcement cooperation is an element of those negotiations and the events on Eastern beach will underscore the need to establish a framework allowing law enforcement agencies from both sides of the border to better coordinate and work together.

“We have to understand that the sort of thing that we're seeing here is the sort of thing that we never want to see again,” Mr Picardo told GBC.

“Treaty negotiations will enable us to recast much of what is giving rise to this sort of activity in a way that means we will not see it again.”

“So I think it would be extraordinarily short-sighted to allow something like this impetuous action, taken in the heat of the moment by those who are not involved in treaty negotiations, to derail treaty negotiations.”

The Chief Minister acknowledged the difficult nature of law enforcement work at sea and said it was vital to properly understand what had transpired in the lead-up to the incident.

Initial reports from Spanish law enforcement agencies last week suggested the two officers were on a small tender boat belonging to a larger Spanish customs vessel when they ran into engine trouble and were washed ashore by rough seas.

On shore, they were surrounded by a large group of individuals – as many as 25 and all Spanish, officials here believe - and pelted with rocks, some of them up to 20cm across.

“We need to understand what happened,” Mr Picardo said in his interview with GBC.

“Did they mean to come onto the shore in Gibraltar or did the weather bring them into the shore, into Gibraltar? Did they know that they were in Gibraltar?”

“We had a very recent case where Gibraltar police officers who were off Spanish waters believed they were in British Gibraltar Territorial Waters.”

“So if it was good for us to believe that our RGP officers did not know that they were off Spain, off La Atunara beach, it must equally be good if that is the reasoning advanced that Spanish officers did not know that they were off Gibraltar beach and perhaps by the time they realised that, they were being brought ashore by the storm.”

“All of those things are to be determined.”

“That's why we have to be in contact with our Spanish counterparts and get their views and explanations as to what happened.”

“But of course, they are two law enforcement officials who believed they were doing a job.”

“I've been in touch with my counterparts to express my concern about their wellbeing and ask after them, although they should not have been in Gibraltar.”

“And [while] I think that they acted recklessly from what I have seen, I’m of course concerned about their wellbeing.”

Amid wider concerns about tobacco contraband, Mr Picardo insisted there was “no question” of Gibraltar being seen as “a safe haven” for smuggling gangs.

He said Gibraltar had for many years been steadily increasing the price of cigarettes and that, while “isolated incidents” occurred, they were dealt with “expeditiously” by authorities here.

“I think it's intolerable that there should be such an illicit trade,” he said.

Speaking to Cadena Ser on Sunday, Pedro Fernandez, the Spanish Government’s representative in Andalucia, pointed to a fall in smuggling activity in recent months.

“There have been situations of risk and aggression, but I can tell you that the number of smuggling operations detected in 2022 has dropped by a considerable percentage compared to previous years,” Mr Fernandez said.

And while he reflected Spain’s position on the sovereignty of the waters around Gibraltar and its robust rejection of the attack on the two Spanish officers, he said Spain and Gibraltar must “work together” to tackle criminality of this type.

“I’m absolutely convinced that this situation, from a diplomatic point of view, will be redirected toward a joint effort to tackle smuggling,” he said.

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