Spain summons UK ambassador over ‘non-incident’ at sea
Spain’s Foreign Affairs Ministry called in Britain’s ambassador to Madrid yesterday to protest what it described as “reckless and irresponsible” behaviour by a Gibraltar police boat toward a Guardia Civil vessel, an incident denied by both the British Government and the Royal Gibraltar Police.
The Spanish ministry said it had lodged a serious complaint with Ambassador Simon Manley, insisting an RGP vessel had twice approached the Spanish patrol boat at great speed last Friday, only changing course and avoiding collision at the last moment.
“Their irresponsible and reckless manoeuvre – carried out twice – led to a significant, clear and sudden risk to the safety of both official vessels and their crews,” the Spanish ministry said.
But the Spanish version of events about the incident off Catalan Bay last Friday was disputed by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which insisted there had been no risk to crews.
“Safety at sea is one of our top priorities,” a Foreign Office spokesman told the Chronicle.
“The Royal Gibraltar Police vessel attempted to make contact with the Spanish vessel and maintained a safe distance at all times.”
The RGP also dismissed the Spanish account of what had transpired in British waters off Catalan Bay, even disputing its location. Whereas Spain claimed it took place a mile off the beach, the RGP said it was a mere 150 metres from shore.
“At the time, the RGP vessel approached the Guardia Civil vessel and maintained a safe distance at all times whilst attempting to make contact with the crew of establishing their intentions,” a police spokesman said.
“As is standard operating procedure, all encounters between RGP and Spanish law enforcement vessels are reported through the appropriate channels.”
A senior police source told the Chronicle that the incident had been videoed by both the RGP and the Guardia Civil crews.
He said the footage taken by the Gibraltarian officer showed the two vessels travelling at around 20 knots parallel to each other and the shore.
While the RGP vessel was seen to approach the Spanish boat on at least two occasions in the video, the Spanish boat did not alter its course and there was never a risk of collision, the source said.
A British Government source appeared to corroborate this by saying the presence of the Spanish vessel had been logged as innocent passage, meaning it had sailed in a straight line through British waters.
“It was a non-incident,” the source said.
Likewise, while the Spanish authorities claim there was no communication, the police video footage clearly records the voice of a local officer shouting out to the Guardia Civil to stop and talk, the source added.
In international diplomacy, summoning an ambassador is a very significant step reserved as a response to the most serious of incidents.
Mr Manley has been summoned in the past by Spain in relation to events in British waters. But until now it had always been as part of a tit-for-tat response after the UK had first summoned the Spanish ambassador in London to complain about Spanish actions at sea.
Yesterday was the first time, at least in recent years, that Spain took the first step.
The decision to summon Mr Manley was revealed in a communique issued by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs in Madrid.
The statement said the state secretary at the Spanish ministry, Ignacio Ybáñez, had also used the opportunity to reaffirm Spain’s position on Gibraltar waters.
Spain insists Gibraltar has no territorial waters, a position rejected by the British Government.
“We are confident of UK sovereignty over British Gibraltar territorial waters in international law,” the Foreign Office spokesman said, adding that the Royal Navy challenges all incursions by Spanish state vessels.
“Incursions are an unacceptable violation of British sovereignty. We formally protest all incursions with the Spanish Government.”
“We will continue to use a range of proportionate diplomatic and naval responses to incidents.”
The Chronicle understands that during the meeting with Sr Ybáñez, Mr Manley expressed concern about an incident last Thursday in which a Guardia Civil vessel cut the fishing lines on two local vessels in British waters.
Last night, the Gibraltar Government said it was “incredible” that Spain had summoned the british ambassador over an incident in British waters.
“The Spanish Government has no jurisdiction in British Gibraltar territorial waters and must cease to defy UK sovereignty in the waters around Gibraltar by patrolling within them,” No 6 Convent Place said in a statement.
“There have been complaints for many years at the dangerous and cavalier manner in which Spanish state assets have operated in and around BGTW.”
“Indeed, few weeks ago one such vessel came within 600 yards of a US nuclear submarine in an irresponsible direct bee-line approach at speed.”
“The government fully supports the Royal Gibraltar Police and all our other agencies in their actions to uphold the law in British waters.”
Mr Manley has been a staunch defender of Gibraltar’s interests since his arrival in the Spanish capital and has incurred the anger of the Spanish Foreign Affairs Ministry on several occasions.
He has also advocated the need for better cross-border relations and has repeatedly drawn attention not just to Gibraltar’s contribution to the Campo economy, but to the missed opportunities for further growth through cooperation.
Just this week in an interview with Euro Weekly News, Mr Manley said: “Gibraltar people had significant concern about Britain leaving the European Union with 96 per cent I think, of those who voted, voting in favour of staying in the European Union. That was the clear preference and we will work with them as we will work with Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland administrations in the weeks and months ahead to elaborate the British position in the negotiations.”
“We will clearly continue to defend the long held British Government position in respect of Gibraltar, which defends the right of the people of Gibraltar to determine their own fate and more positively still is to work with the Governor to make clear to Spanish people in Government that whatever happened on June 23 the fundamentals remain the same.”
“There is a tremendous opportunity if we want to seize it, to work together to create a zone of prosperity in and around Gibraltar.”
“The Gibraltarian economy is extraordinarily robust; a great example of a thriving free-market economy creating thousands of jobs in that area, and we are keen to ensure that prosperity spreads beyond the borders of Gibraltar to neighbouring areas of La Linea, San Roque, and elsewhere.”