Spanish armada postponed: Iberian anger at new competition from Britain on North African run

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A BREWING war of the seas, threatening to pit the Kingdom of Spain and its armada against the might of the Union Flag, the royal crown of Morocco and the sacred scrolls of Brussels has, to the probable relief of all concerned, been put off until a later date. A British-flagged car ferry, the Scirocco, which had planned to sail from the Moroccan port of Nador to the Spanish Mediterranean port of Almeria on Monday in defiance of a Spanish warning that it would be 'arrested', has postponed its departure for 10 days.

The ferry's British owners, Cenargo International Ltd, say the European Community's single-market regulations give it every right to inaugurate the new service. Whitehall, Morocco, Brussels, even most of Almeria, with an eye on jobs and commerce, agree. Spain, whose state ferry company, Transmediterranea, has been enjoying a lucrative monopoly on crossings between Spain's North African enclave of Melilla and various Spanish ports, does not and is showing great reluctance to back down despite the mounting international pressure.

It has not quite reached British Fleet v Spanish Armada Part Two, but Spain's ambassador, Alberto Aza, was called in to the Foreign Office on Thursday for a polite dressing down. 'We asked the Spanish government to reconsider its position . . . to live up to its obligations to uphold the freedom to provide shipping services contained in EC law,' a British official said.

The word in the Moroccan port was that Spanish customs patrol boats at Melilla, which shares the same bay and harbour entrance as Nador, had planned to 'intercept' the British ferry on its inaugural crossing, due for Monday morning. What 'interception' might entail was unclear but the Moroccans among the Scirocco's 100-strong crew had threatened to hole themselves up in the ship's mosque in protest. British crewmen (jokingly, one presumes) said they would defend themselves with the galley's knives and forks.

Spanish gunpowder will be kept dry for at least 10 days while the protagonists seek a diplomatic solution in London, Madrid and Rabat. Until then, the only scirocco coming in from North Africa and causing headaches along the Mediterranean coast will be the warm, moist wind after which the 300-car, 1,500-passenger ferry was named.

The idea of running a new car ferry service from Nador to Almeria came last year from the British merchant shipping group Cenargo International Ltd, basing the move on the EC's deregulation of maritime passage between EC nations and third countries from 1 January this year. It seemed like a good idea at the time, and still does.

Transmediterranea, Spanish customs and other authorities have proved woefully unable, in some cases unwilling, to cope with the summer rush of North African workers returning home for holidays from their jobs in Spain, France and the rest of Europe. Every year, queues of cars, often miles long, build up at the Spanish ports, mainly Algeciras and Malaga, in blistering temperatures, causing occasional casualties and regular frayed tempers. Moroccans say they are often discriminated against while Spanish vehicles are allowed through.

Cenargo, noting that Almeria and Nador were under-used despite the bottlenecks at Algeciras and Melilla, has invested 1.5bn pesetas (pounds 8.5m), in the project, including the refurbishment of the Scirocco with a mosque, a special kitchen for Muslim food and a discotheque for those who prefer to worship wine, women and/or song.

Michael Hendry, Cenargo's chairman, decided on a 10-day postponement of the inaugural crossing to give Spain a chance to come round. Morocco, he said, would immediately hold high-level talks with Spain to 'adapt' their existing bilateral maritime treaty, which Madrid has used as its reason for opposing Cenargo's new route, to the EC regulations. The bilateral accord thus adapted, he said, though in more legalistic jargon, would leave Spain without a leg to stand on.

The potential 'ferry war' is not yet over. Spain has not responded to Cenargo's latest move. And at stake is more than just Spanish pride. Transmediterranea is, or was, in the process of being sold to one of the country's leading banks, Banco Central Hispano. The bank's offer for a possibly uncompetitive shipping line is unlikely to be the one it had planned to make for a monopoly.

The economic future of Melilla is also in the balance. A better, smoother or faster service right next door, at Nador, is bound to attract travellers or traders across the Spanish- Moroccan border. With Spanish general elections coming up on 6 June, and Melilla delicately balanced between Spain's ruling Socialists and the conservative opposition Popular Party, expect the plot to thicken.

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