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Gibraltar: Addendum


Gibraltar: Correction

In my previous post, I wrote that a Spanish warship had intercepted two cargo ships bound for Gibraltar port. At that time, I had posted a picture of a Descubierto-class corvette, but in fact the ship involved is the Tagomago (P-22), an Anaga-class patrol boat.


The most critical factor is that both are Spanish warships, which makes the incident far graver from a diplomatic point of view than if the Spanish vessel had belonged to the Civil Guard. However, the Anaga-class boats are significantly smaller than the corvette I had originally pictured (319 tonnes displacement versus 1,640 tonnes for the corvette). Compare this to the typical British patrol craft that is stationed as part of the permanent Gibraltar “squadron”: the HMS Scimitar and Sabre displace only 24 tonnes. While these fast patrol vessels are admirably suited to their task of chasing the occasional smuggler or sending off Spanish fishing boats, they are not what anyone would call “intimidating”.

This disparity largely explains why Gibraltarian officials and some Members of Parliament have urged the MoD to send additional ships to the Rock, including some of the Type-23 frigates stationed at Portsmouth. The effect is psychological as well as political: it would reassure Gibraltarians that London is not about to abandon them to their fates, as well as letting the Spanish know that they take these bullying incursions seriously. So far, the Ministry has demurred from such a step; rightly in my opinion. It would only play into Mr. Rajoy’s hands, allowing him to paint the British as aggressors – Sir Francis Drake come again – rather than as the victims of the unprovoked interference by an allied state.


Spain’s reaction has been one of innocent indignation. They express surprise that the British should be so incensed over what they call the Tagomago’s “exquisite compliance” with international law in the execution of “entirely routine” duties[1]. This might be believed if it were not for the long and repeated history of Spanish provocations on British Gibraltarian sovereignty:

  • The Spanish Navy patrol boat, Atalaya (P-74) had also warned off merchant ships en route to the harbor in a previous incident that occurred on 3 May 2011[2].
  • In addition to the June 22nd incident, the Tagomago was involved in another incident on the 10th of December 2012, when the Spanish patrol craft approached to within a mile of the Gibraltar harbor lighthouse and ignored repeated warnings by HMS Scimitar to depart;[3]
  • The next day (11 Dec 2012) the Civil Guard vessel “Rio Guadalete” actually entered the Gibraltar harbor and approached the mole before exiting with a dangerous maneuver in front of HMS Scimitar as the latter approached with a warning and an order to depart.

This second incident is particularly damning because, while Spain disputes the internationally recognized 3-mile limit to Gibraltar’s territorial waters, it does not dispute the sovereignty of the waters within the harbor[4], which the “Rio Guadalete” clearly infringed. Spain made no specific response at the time to British protests, but the pattern of harassment is clear enough. But Mariano Rajoy ought to be more concerned with keeping united what territory Spain already has rather than pursuing a recidivist agenda towards Gibraltar more appropriate to El Caudillo than to a the leader of a friendly and allied democracy.  Mr. Rajoy has no chance of becoming “the man who recovered Gibraltar” but stands a very good chance of becoming “the man who lost Catalonia”[5].


Herein lays an opportunity for the United Kingdom, though one they are unlikely to exploit. On September 17th, the Scottish referendum will be held to determine whether the 1707 Act of Union is upheld or revoked, and Scotland becomes and independent and sovereign nation again. Regardless of the outcome, Great Britain – or what remains of it – would no longer have to worry about potential negative impacts on the Scots from their position regarding Catalonia. If Spanish provocations continued unabated, and if Mr. Cameron wanted to play hardball, he could privately threaten to support Catalonia’s own bid for a legal referendum. The public support of a major power like the United Kingdom would be a shot in the arm to the cause of Catalan separatists; and a kind word from the Prime Minister with the City of London would go far to ensuring the financial viability of a new Catalan state.

At the very least, such a threat might deter Mr. Rajoy from any more rash provocations until after the November 9th referendum. At that point, either Spain would have much bigger problems than Gibraltar anyway or else the need to bang the nationalist drum would have diminished substantially[6]. In both cases, there would be an opportunity to place relations back on a more rational and amiable footing, though there is no hope of a permanent normalization of Gibraltar’s status so long as the Partido Popular remain in power[7].

Sources and Notes:

[1] “Spain doubles challenge on Gibraltar waters dispute: summons UK ambassador,” MercoPress,                 22 July 2014

[2] Agence France Presse, “Gibraltar Slams New ‘Incursion’ By Spanish Navy,” Defense News, 03 May 2011

[3] “Spain’s Reaction to Hague’s Warning: Spanish State Vessels Take Executive Action in BGTW,” Panorama, 12 December 2012

[4] Spain’s position is that the Treaty of Utrecht, which ceded Gibraltar to the British, only grants sovereignty over the waters of the harbor itself. The Unite d Kingdom argues that subsequent treaties on International maritime limits – UNCLOS,  to which both Spain and the UK are signatories – grant up to a 12-mile limit though  Gibraltar remains one of the few territories that does not claim the full limit and remains at 3 miles. The UK argues that Spain cannot selectively apply these treaties to some parts of the United Kingdom and not to others.

[5] It would be an appropriate sobriquet as it has been under Mr. Rajoy’s inept leadership of the Partido Popular that the greatest friction has been generated with the Catalans and which may yet lead to the decisive break.

[6] I am assuming that in the former case, Spain would be pre-occupied with a strong pro-independence vote leading to either a negotiated or unilateral declaration of Catalan Independence; and in the latter case, the referendum would either have been delayed, cancelled or the Independence faction would have failed to gather sufficient votes.

[7] To be perfectly fair, full normalization of Gibraltar’s status is unilkely under any Spanish government, but the Socialist Party came closest to negotiating a shared sovereignty agreement: which was almost unanimously rejected by the people of Gibraltar.

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