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Opinion & Analysis

In run-up to Christmas, a diplomatic flashpoint looms at sea

Photo by David Parody

Spain’s caretaker Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchez, has sealed a series of pacts with smaller parties that will likely see him sworn in for a fourth term in the coming days, despite a storm of protest from his political opponents.

The hope is that, with a new government in place in Madrid, formal negotiations for a UK/EU treaty on Gibraltar’s post-Brexit relations with the bloc can resume after months on hold pending the conclusion of electoral processes here and in Spain.

Among the many imponderables that could complicate those talks going forward, however, is a development in British Gibraltar territorial waters with the potential to escalate rapidly into a serious problem.

Earlier this summer, a Spanish fisherman was reported for process for allegedly fishing with nets inside British waters. Under Gibraltar’s nature conservation laws, fishing with nets and rakes is prohibited.

The fisherman, Jonathan Sanchez, faces charges under Gibraltar’s conservation and navigation laws and has been summonsed to appear before the Magistrates Court on December 1.

In public statements to the media in Spain, he has reportedly said he will not appear before the court.

To do so, he says, sounding more like a politician than a fisherman, would be to recognise Gibraltar’s jurisdiction in Spanish waters. Under Spanish law, the fisherman says, he is allowed to fish there and will continue to do so.

Mr Sanchez may yet change his mind about court and, if he does, would be entitled to legal representation under Gibraltar’s legal aid system, as would any other defendant.

But if he fails to appear, that could place the Royal Gibraltar Police in an uncomfortable position if the court issues a warrant for arrest for failing to answer a summons, a likely outcome. Enforcing such a warrant, the inevitable next step, could lead to a volatile situation at sea.

In practical terms, the risk is a diplomatic flare-up and strained cross-border relations just when negotiators are about to give the treaty talks a final push to get them over the line.

The position outlined by the fisherman is, from his viewpoint at least, understandable to a degree. If Madrid is telling him the waters around Gibraltar are Spanish, why wouldn’t he be allowed to fish there? But the reality is far more complicated.

Those waters, as the UK and Gibraltar governments are at pains to stress at every opportunity, are British under international law. Spain has been asked by the UK in the past to put the matter before an international court but has failed to take up that opportunity. Read into that what you will.

But even if they were Spanish waters - and always remembering the British legal position, which is they are not – Spanish law itself could be problematic for the fisherman.

Back in 2012, the waters around Gibraltar were designated by Spain as an EU nature conservation zone, known as a Site of Community Importance (SCI) under the Habits Directive.

The UK once also had an SCI overlapping the same area, but Brexit means there is now only the Spanish EU-designated site, known as Estrecho Oriental, while the UK version is now protected under Council of Europe regulations.

The Spanish legislation creating that EU designation, the Royal Decree 1620/2012, sets out in detail what would and would not be allowed in those waters, assuming they were Spanish.

It prohibits, for example, the use of nets around Europa Point, an area which the fisherman, just this weekend in an interview with Campo newspaper Europa Sur, said was one of his most productive spots.

The reason for that prohibition is set out clearly in the Spanish law, which states: "Regarding the artisanal fishing nets that currently operate in the area, although they are selective in terms of catches, they could generate a significant impact on these [ecosystems] when they come into contact with the seabed.”

Additionally, trawling and raking are “… considered one of the main causes of deterioration of reef ecosystems”, causing “serious mechanical damage” to them.

These are precisely the same reasons why fishing with nets and rakes is banned under Gibraltar’s legislation.

The Spanish SCI law is more generous on commercial fishing further from Europa Point, but there are still other factors in play.

Take, for example, the harvesting of shellfish using rakes. The Junta de Andalucia, which regulates coastal fishing grounds in the region, does not designate the waters around the Rock as a fishing ground for shellfish.

The nearest fishery stops just off the border, meaning any shellfish collected off the east side of the Rock and sold in Spain come from a fishing ground that the Junta is not controlling for water quality and the like.

Put all of that together and artisanal fishing of the sort we are concerned with may, in fact, fall foul of Spanish law inside the conservation zone, at least in certain areas and depending on the type of fishing being carried out.

Not that any of this is relevant, given the waters are British and Gibraltar law applies. But the point is both sets of legislation seek to protect the marine environment from the damage caused by commercial fishing, however low impact it is.

All of this comes at a very delicate juncture in Spanish politics.

Over the past week, Pedro Sanchez has faced tough opposition including multitudinous protests around the country to his agreements with smaller independentist parties whose support is vital if he is to succeed.

His plan to offer an amnesty to people involved in Catalonia’s failed 2017 bid for independence has led to accusations that he is riding roughshod over the rule of law for his own political gain.

There are two schools of thought as to whether that situation will temper Spanish appetite to push ahead with a deal on Gibraltar.

One view is that any opposition to an agreement on Gibraltar will be largely insignificant against the backdrop of the furious response to the amnesty plan and Mr Sanchez’ coalition pacts.

Conversely, others ponder whether a new Spanish government, faced with political and popular opposition to a controversial coalition pact, will prefer to avoid adding fuel to the fire with any movement on Gibraltar.

The coming weeks will show us which of those positions is right, though yesterday, just hours after David Cameron was appointed Foreign Secretary in a UK reshuffle, his counterpart Jose Manuel Albares tweeted his congratulations, adding he looked forward to strengthening UK/Spain relations and “… to achieve the development of an area of shared prosperity that benefits Campo de Gibraltar-Gibraltar.”

That appears to signal Spain’s appetite for a deal is still very much alive.

Hopefully formal negotiations will resume soon but, in the meantime, officials on both sides of the border should keep a careful eye on developments in British waters.

It’s a tricky one if Mr Sanchez, the fisherman, fails to show up for court. The law is the law and must be applied and enforced.

But whether we like it or not, the conflicting interpretations on sovereignty and jurisdiction of the waters create a messy reality at sea.

That reality places everyone from the fisherman to the RGP in a difficult, unpredictable situation, not just for the individuals involved, but for the long-term prospects of communities on both sides of the border whose only desire is for post-Brexit clarity and stability going forward.

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