A British warship docked in Gibraltar on Monday amid a dispute over access to local waters.
British authorities insisted the arrival of the Westminster was part of a long-planned military training operation rather than a show of force aimed at Spain.
The vessel arrived a day after Spanish fishing boats confronted British police to protest Gilbralter’s building of an artificial reef in front of the territory.
Construction on the project began early this month. British authorities prevented Spanish fishermen from sailing into the reef area on Sunday, but the latter have vowed more protests.
Madrid has regularly challenged Britain’s three-century-long control over the 2.6-mile-wide territory. But Gibraltar’s decision to build the reef has considerably heightened tensions. Madrid retaliated by tightening border controls, forcing cars to wait for hours in order to enter or leave the territory.
Madrid has also said it might charge 50 euros, or about $67, to cross the border, saying the additional revenues could help compensate Spanish fishermen for their losses resulting from their restricted access to Gibraltar’s waters, the New York Times reported
Fabian Picardo, the head of Gibraltar’s government, played down the significance of the warship’s arrival. “This was planned quite long before the issues that we’re having to deal with now,” he said.
At the same time, Picardo recently stated that “hell will freeze over” before Gibraltar removes the reef and accused Madrid of escalating the Gibraltar dispute in order to divert attention away from a scandal over a slush fund that has engulfed Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and his ruling Popular Party.
The Westminster was expected to make only a short stop in Gibraltar. A British aircraft carrier, the Illustrious, has also been sailing along the Spanish coast as part of the military training exercise, called Operation Cougar 13. Both London and Madrid have sought the assistance of the European Commission, the executive agency of the European Union, in resolving the dispute.
On Friday, David Cameron, the British prime minister, called José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission and asked Brussels to send European inspectors to Britain, which secured control of Gibraltar in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, handles Gibraltar’s defense and international relations, but Gibraltar’s own government has significant autonomy over trade and industry issues, as well as the ability to set its own taxes.
Some Spanish media outlets have suggested that Rajoy’s center-right government might be well-served to de-escalate the Gilbralter conflict. In a recent editorial titled “August fever,” El País, Spain’s largest-circulation broadsheet newspaper, said that “a realistic vision” should take account of the reality that any British concession over Gibraltar could also encourage Morocco to revive its claims over the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla.
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