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Gibraltar: The rock of offence

Both Spain and Britain stand to lose if they permit the conflict over Gibraltar to continue

Britain and Spain are supposed to be NATO and EU allies. You wouldn’t think so now, as a petty dispute over concrete blocks planted in the sea off Gibraltar to protect marine life morphs into a serious cause of friction. Far from fizzling out, as former spats over Gibraltar did usually, this conflict is in danger of escalating to the point of no return.

While Spain talks of adding a hefty new tax to the tough controls it has already imposed on traffic crossing the border, Britain retaliates with complaints to the European Commission, the dispatch of a naval flotilla and vaguely worded threats to take Spain to court for breaching people’s right to free movement.

Yesterday, Spanish fishermen further upped the ante by staging a floating protest in the waters beside the concrete reef. Meanwhile, calls are heard here for the Government to dispatch a member of the royal family to the territory to show solidarity with Gibraltar’s people and government which, for its part, has stubbornly declared that “hell will freeze over” before it removes the offending reef.

David Cameron was right to tell the President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, that the dispute was at least in part politically motivated by Spain’s right-wing government, which has fanned the flames to divert public attention from corruption scandals besetting the governing Popular Party. Until the appearance of the concrete blocks off Gibraltar, Spain’s Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, was under pressure to answer questions about tax evasion. Now he is too busy defending Spain’s dignity to deal with that issue, while opposition Socialists have been pushed on to the defensive.

The danger now is that a small incident could push matters beyond hope of resolution, in which case Spain may seal the border, as General Franco did in the 1960s. In that case, thousands of Spanish citizens who work on the rock will lose their jobs. Gibraltarians also stand to suffer, economically and psychologically. But so will Britain and Spain generally. The standing of both countries will be diminished if they prove unable to resist their natural instinct to answer each perceived provocation with a counterblast. What an absurd and degrading spectacle it will be if either Spain or Britain acts on its threats to take a spat over a minute territory ceded under the terms of a long-forgotten treaty to the UN or the European Commission.

Mr Cameron would do best to call Mr Rajoy’s bluff, ignore provocations from Madrid and rein in temptations to indulge in Palmerston-style gunboat diplomacy. He should quietly tell the Gibraltar government to cool its language and reconsider whether this concrete reef is worth all this grief. If a soft answer from Britain fails to appease Spain’s wrath, it will at least be clearer to the world which side in this dispute is indulging in irresponsible brinkmanship.