David Cameron has accused Spain of imposing “politically motivated and disproportionate” border checks on people entering and leaving Gibraltar – as he called for the EU to intervene in the dispute.
In a significant escalation in the diplomatic row between Britain and Spain, Mr Cameron telephoned the European Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso, to raise “serious concerns” over the checks, which he claimed broke EU rules on freedom of movement.
The Prime Minister said the United Kingdom was now considering legal action against Spain, and revealed that the Government was “collating evidence” of the “sporadic nature” of the Spanish checks to “prove that they are illegitimate”.
Last week Mr Cameron had appeared keen to defuse the row following a telephone call with his Spanish counterpart Mariano Rajoy. But with long border queues continuing and Spain claiming that Gibraltar has not controlled smuggling Downing Street said that Mr Cameron had decided to officially call for EU intervention.
The row started after Spain accused Gibraltar of deliberately attempting to disrupt Spanish fishing boats by installing an artificial reef off its coast, which can ruin fishing nets.
Downing Street said that Mr Cameron had asked President Barroso to ensure that the EU assessed whether the Spanish checks were legitimate.
“We believe that the European Commission, as guardian of the treaties, should investigate the issue,” said a spokeswoman.
“The Prime Minister called on President Barroso to send an EU monitoring team to the Gibraltar-Spain border urgently to gather evidence of the checks that are being carried out.
[He] emphasised that the Commission has a responsibility to do this as part of its role overseeing the application of Union law.
“President Barroso responded that the European Commission is closely monitoring the situation and that, following a thorough legal assessment, it would not hesitate to take any measures necessary to uphold EU law.”
The spokeswoman added that the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg would be telephoning the Spanish Deputy Prime Minister, Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, to reiterate British concerns and to press for a way forward to “de-escalate the issue.”