Spat over Gibraltar smells fishy

Police officers patrol the footpath which crosses Gibraltar's runway on August 7, 2013 in Gibraltar.

Britain has become embroiled in a curious little row over one of its last remaining colonies: Gibraltar. Home to 30,000 British citizens, it occupies 2.5 square miles on the rocky southernmost tip of the Spanish mainland. Spain ceded the territory to Britain by treaty in 1713, but it has trying to get it back ever since.

Now the government in Madrid is threatening reprisals against the self-governing enclave in a dispute over fishing. The latest row flared-up after Gibraltar laid an artificial concrete reef in disputed waters, hindering Spanish fishermen. Spain has demanded the reef's removal.

“What won’t happen is that decisions made  by the executive in Gibraltar will be undone because of Spanish saber-rattling. Hell will freeze over before that happens,” says the territory’s Chief Minister Fabian Picardo.

But the saber-rattling is intense. Spain has imposed new travel controls causing long delays at the border; it’s talked about a levy of $65 on anyone who wants to cross into Spain, and it’s even threatening to close its airspace to planes headed for Gibraltar.

All about fish? Senior British lawmaker Sir Menzies  Campbell thinks not.

“This reef may just have been the opportunity the Spanish government was looking for in order to divert attention from its very obvious difficulties at home,” claims  Campbell.

The Spanish government has been engulfed by a corruption scandal, and if the Gibraltar spat is a distraction tactic it seems to be working: the corruption scandal has been temporarily knocked  from the headlines in Spain.

For his part, British Prime Minister David Cameron is backing the Rock.

“I think it’s important to recognise that it’s not acceptable  what’s been happening to the people of Gibraltar,” said Cameron. “But I’m very clear that Britain will always stand up for the people of Gibraltar."

Fighting talk, but this isn’t war. There’ s too much at stake. Last year, 13.5 million Brits spent their summer vacations in Spain. The Gibraltar reef seems unlikely to wreck Anglo-Spanish relations.

About the author

Stephen Beard is the European bureau chief and provides daily coverage of Europe’s business and economic developments for the entire Marketplace portfolio.

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