Britain to protest ‘unlawful incursion’ amid diplomatic tension over Gibraltar
A Spanish warship sailed into British waters off Gibraltar yesterday against a backdrop of tension between London and Madrid over the Rock’s future relationship with the EU.
While incidents of this nature are not uncommon, this one comes amid the row over Gibraltar after the European Union said Spain should have a say on whether a future trade deal between the UK and the bloc should also be extended to the Rock.
The Spanish Navy corvette Infanta Cristina was shadowed by a patrol boat from the Royal Navy’s Gibraltar Squadron as it sailed slowly past the Rock about a mile from shore.
The UK Government said it would protest to Spain, as it does with all such incursions.
“The Royal Navy challenges all unlawful maritime incursions into British Gibraltar territorial waters,” a UK Government spokesman said.
“We back this up by making formal diplomatic protests to the Spanish government.”
“These actions effectively defend our sovereignty over British Gibraltar territorial waters.”
The incident comes a day after Prime Minister Theresa May tried to calm a row over Gibraltar and its place in the Brexit process.
Mrs May insisted that Britain’s relations with Spain remain on a basis of “jaw-jaw”, after a predecessor as Conservative leader suggested she might be ready to resort to war to defend Gibraltar.
After an EU document suggested that Spain would be given a say on post-Brexit agreements governing the Rock, Tory peer Lord Howard said he was certain that the Prime Minister would be ready to defend the Rock as Margaret Thatcher did the Falklands.
On Monday Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis said he was surprised by tone of some of the statements made by UK politicians and media, adding there was no need to “lose composure”.
But the presence of a Spanish warship in British waters off Gibraltar, while far from unusual, was seen as an unnecessary provocation against the backdrop of the recent exchanges it
“Today’s illegal incursion by a Spanish naval vessel is a timely demonstration of the way in which Spain routinely conducts itself in breach of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea,” said a spokesman for the Gibraltar Government.
“It is almost as if Lord Howard has unnerved someone senior in the Spanish Navy.”
Britain claims three miles of territorial sea around the Rock, but Spain insists the waters are Spanish and that its vessels are conducting routing operations.
Incidents of this nature are not uncommon and very rarely escalate beyond an exchange of radio warnings and diplomatic protests.
Last November in response to a question from Conservative peer Lord Patten in the House of Lords, the UK Government said there had been 434 incursions by Spanish state vessels into Gibraltar waters in the 12 months to October 31, 2016, the most recent available data.
“Incursions are a violation of sovereignty, not a threat to it,” the UK Government spokesman added.
“They do not weaken or undermine the legal basis in international law for British sovereignty over Gibraltar, including British Gibraltar territorial waters.”
A spokesman for Spain's foreign ministry denied that the vessel had made an illegal incursion yesterday.
"An illegal incursion, no, because for us it is the utilisation of our waters," a spokesman for the foreign ministry told Reuters.
"Spain does not recognise others’ rights and situations belonging to Great Britain in the maritime spaces that are not included in Article 10 of the Utrecht treaty.”