David Cameron said today he was “seriously concerned” about the escalating tension with Spain after the country’s Foreign Minister José Garcia-Margallo threatened to impose a levy on every vehicle that crosses the border between Spain and Gibraltar.
Officials held crisis talks with their Spanish counterparts and the British Overseas Territory’s Chief Minister, Fabian Picardo, was moved to describe the comments from Madrid as “reminiscent of the type of statement you’d hear from North Korea than from an EU partner”.
Mr Picardo told Radio 4’s Today programme that the recent deterioration in relations represented “sabre-rattling of the sort that we haven’t seen for some time”.
He went on: “We’ve seen it before during Franco’s time during the 1960s but I think all of us hoped that those politics were never going to come back.”
Speaking to the right-wing Spanish newspaper, ABC, at the weekend, Mr Garcia-Margallo threatened to close Spanish air space to flights in and out of Gibraltar, to begin tax investigations of thousands of Gibraltarians who own property in Spain, and to impose a €50 (£43) “congestion charge” on every vehicle going in or out of Gibraltar.
A Downing Street spokesman said yesterday that British officials have been trying to find out from their Spanish counterparts how seriously to take the threats. “Specifically on this issue of border fees, the Spanish have not raised the prospect of introducing border fees with us.
“We are seeking an explanation from them regarding reports that they might target Gibraltar with further measures,” he said.
Two weeks ago, Gibraltan boats began dumping concrete blocks in the sea to create an artificial reef – which the administration claims will protect the environment and prevent Spanish boats illegally fishing in their waters. Spain claims that the reef infringes the rights of Spanish fishermen.
The Spaniards retaliated with stricter border checks which have caused long queues of traffic trying to get in or out of Gibraltar. Gibraltar has complained to the EU, and last week, the Spanish ambassador was called to the Foreign Office for “consultations”.
Spain’s right-wing government has been struggling with limited success to cope with the consequences of the 2008 banking crisis, and has been hit by a corruption scandal involving the former treasurer of the governing People’s Party,
Luis Barcenas, who maintained a series of illicit accounts filled with money from donors seeking lucrative government contracts.
Mr Garcia-Margello’s threat of an economic war with the UK was made on the 309th anniversary of the capture of Gibraltar. Spain claims that the rocky outpost is their territory, but the UK has insisted that it will not surrender sovereignty.