Gibraltar row: Warship HMS Westminster sets off for British territory as tensions rise

Downing Street said it was considering the 'unprecedented step' of legal action against Spain over extra border checks

Deputy Political Editor

The Royal Navy warship HMS Westminster has set sail from its home port heading for Gibraltar amid diplomatic tensions with Spain

HMS Westminster, a type 23 frigate, left Portsmouth naval base in Hampshire, to join nine other vessels taking part in a pre-planned international training exercise called Cougar '13 in the Mediterranean and Gulf.

The exercise comes as Britain threatened Spain with legal action over the "politically motivated" imposition of extra checks on the frontier with Gibraltar.

Diplomatic tensions between the two countries continued to grow after Downing Street disclosed it was considering taking the "unprecedented step" on the grounds that the Spanish action breached European Union law.

Sources in London believe the Madrid government is stoking up the issue as a distraction from its political travails, which include accusations of corruption and the continuing pain of austerity measures.

Last week Number 10 claimed David Cameron had secured a promise from his Spanish counterpart, Mariano Rajoy, to scale down the border controls, but the Spaniards immediately contradicted Britain's version of events.

With little sign of an early resolution to the stand-off, there were reports at the weekend of drivers facing a wait of up two hours to pass into the UK overseas territory.

A Downing Street spokesman said: "Clearly the Prime Minister is disappointed by the failure of Spain to remove the additional border checks this weekend. We are now considering what legal action is open to us.

"This would be an unprecedented step so we want to consider it carefully before a making a decision to pursue."

A cloud looms over the Rock of Gibraltar, which is the subject of a dispute over sovereignty between the UK and Spain A cloud looms over the Rock of Gibraltar  

He said: "We feel these delays are politically motivated and totally disproportionate".

Ministers were discussing whether to pursue the issue as a "matter of urgency" with the EU, the spokesman added.

Giles Paxman, Britain's ambassador in Madrid, reiterated the possibility of legal action yesterday during a meeting with Spanish officials.

But Ignacio Ibanez, director general for foreign affairs at Spain's foreign ministry, shrugged off the threat.

"We are not worried because we are convinced about what we are doing and we know that the right is on our side," he told the BBC.

The move comes amid an escalating row over the construction of an artificial reef by the Gibraltarian authorities which Spain claims will destroy fishing in the area.

Madrid responded by beefing up border controls, leading to lengthy queues, and suggesting that a €50 (£43) fee could be imposed on every vehicle entering or leaving the territory through the fenced border with Spain.

HMS Illustrious leaves Portsmouth navy base as British warships began setting sail for the Mediterranean for a naval exercise that will see one vessel dock in Gibraltar, as tensions rise with Spain over the British-held territory HMS Illustrious leaves Portsmouth navy base

Reports in the Spanish media have suggested the row could escalate to the United Nations, with Madrid floating the idea of Spain and Argentina presenting a "united front" over Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands.

Argentina is currently a non-permanent member of the UN's Security Council and could use its position to add Gibraltar to its agenda. Its president, Cristina Kirchner, has already renewed demands for talks over the sovereignty of the Falklands.

Meanwhile, thousands of Royal Navy personnel set sail yesterday for a long-scheduled training exercise in the Mediterranean. The Ministry of Defence stressed the timing was coincidental, but Boris Johnson, the London Mayor, said the deployment should send a clear signal to the Spanish.

"Maybe it's just a fluke that HMS Illustrious is about to bristle into view on the southern coast of Spain, complete with thousands of Royal Marines and other elite commando units," Mr Johnson said.

"But I hope not. I hope that one way or another we will shortly prise Spanish hands off the throat of our colony, because what is now taking place is infamous."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
England's women celebrate after their 3rd place play-off win against Germany
Women's World CupFara Williams converts penalty to secure victory and bronze medals
Arts and Entertainment
Ricardo by Edward Sutcliffe, 2014
artPortraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb go on display
News
newsHillary Clinton comments on viral Humans of New York photo of gay teenager
Arts and Entertainment
The gang rape scene in the Royal Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell has caused huge controversy
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Immediate Start

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'