– Ministry for Foreign Affairs in Madrid confirms Spanish Navy vessel gave instructions to merchant ships anchored off Gibraltar
– UK initially denies incursion but later admits ‘concern’ after Spain confirms Chronicle report
A Spanish warship tried to order commercial shipping to leave British waters on the east side of the Rock on Sunday, in a serious incident that prompted a furious response from the Gibraltar Government even as the UK Government sought to downplay it.
A spokesman for the Gibraltar Government described the incursion as “a foolish and senseless provocation” and warned Spain that interfering with shipping under Gibraltar’s control could create confusion at sea and put safety of navigation at risk.
The UK Government initially said there had been incursion, only to issue a subsequent statement expressing “concern” after the Spanish Government confirmed the actions of its naval vessel.
The incident was first reported online by the Chronicle and unfolded on the east side of the Rock as the Spanish Navy patrol boat Tornado sailed into British waters.
Crew on the warship radioed at least two merchant vessels, the Ivor Accord and the Great Victory, and told them they were drifting in Spanish territorial waters, advising them to leave the area.
At the time, however, both ships were anchored in British Gibraltar territorial waters in an anchorage monitored and overseen by the Gibraltar Port Authority [GPA].
The exchange was recorded by a Gibraltarian ship spotter who was monitoring VHF marine radio and later sent the audio to the Chronicle, which broke the story online on Sunday night.
In that audio exchange a crew member on the Ivor Accord is heard asking the Spanish ship “to verify you are referring to our ship”, which was anchored in Gibraltar waters.
“We are not adrift, we are at anchor now,” he said, before being told again by the warship to leave “Spanish waters”.
Crew on the Ivor Accord and the Great Victory ignored the instructions from the Spanish vessel and instead contacted the GPA, where port officials told them to remain at anchor.
The Royal Navy’s Gibraltar Squadron despatched HMS Scimitar and a rigid-hulled inflatable boat to intercept the Spanish vessel but by the time they arrived over 30 minutes after the radio exchange, the Tornado was close to Europa Point and heading out into the Strait of Gibraltar.
The Spanish vessel had followed a straight route through British waters hugging the coastline, prompting the UK Government to describe it as “innocent passage” under the rules of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
“There was no incursion on this occasion,” a spokesman for the UK Government said.
UK officials also played down local uproar at the fact that the Spanish vessel had sailed through with its weapons uncovered and manned. They said the Spanish Navy had the legal right to do this, even if the action might be deemed provocative.
The Spanish Ministry for Foreign Affairs later confirmed the incident but said the Tornado had been engaged in a routine patrol through waters claimed by Spain.
During that patrol, the Spanish warship observed vessels that were “not behaving in accordance with the right of innocent passage and they were informed of that violation”, a spokesman at the ministry told Spain’s Europa Press news agency.
Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell told reporters in Brussels that the Spanish Navy ship had been policing the area on Sunday in what he said was a standard procedure.
“The Tornado called three commercial ships that were breaking maritime security law in Spanish territorial waters by standing still …” Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell told reporters in Brussels.
“Those ships responded to the requests of the Tornado and abandoned the area.”
After the Spanish minister’s intervention in Brussels, the UK revised its position.
“We are looking into this incident and are concerned about reports, apparently confirmed by the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, that the Spanish vessel instructed boats in British Gibraltar Territorial Waters to leave,” a UK Government spokesman said.
“Our Ambassador has raised these concerns with the Spanish Government.”
The issue was also raised in a question in the House of Commons, where the UK’s Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said: “We will always be there to defend our sovereign interests and defend Britain’s national interests.”
For the Gibraltar Government, however, the actions of the Spanish Government served only to generate “an atmosphere of mistrust and hostility” that would benefit no one in the run-up to Brexit.
From the outset, No.6 Convent Place maintained that this was “indisputably…an illegal incursion” and said Spain should not “play war games” in a sensitive strategic region that faced serious challenges ranging from illegal migration to drug trafficking.
It said Spain’s actions were a distraction to wider military and security interests in the Strait of Gibraltar.
“Anyone who believes in the rules based international legal order will have been shocked by the cavalier and quixotic actions of the Spanish military vessel at the weekend,” said Chief Minister Fabian Picardo.
Mr Picardo said the Spanish vessel’s actions were “amateurish” and nothing more than “a provocation” that was rightly ignored by the merchant ships in question.
“But this childish behaviour is unsatisfactory whether it is errant or directed from above,” he added.
“It highlights a Spain that is either unable to control its military or, conversely, that is prepared to use its military to advance a political claim in 21st century Europe.”
“Another key factor is the danger to safety at sea if one country pretends it can give orders to vessels that are under the lawful instructions of another country.”
“Actions such as this just create confusion and unnecessary risk to the lives of mariners.”
“That is the nonsense that we are dealing with, foolish actions which achieve nothing but provoke and raise tensions.”
“It reflects extraordinarily badly on the lack of professionalism of the Spanish Navy.
“If they can’t read the charts that show they are in British waters, they shouldn’t be left in charge of a vessel.”
“If they won’t respect the rules based international order, they are pursuing a chaos that will create problems beyond British Gibraltar territorial waters.”
“And if they play games with the safety of lives at sea they will be seen for the bullies that they are.”
“The people of Gibraltar won’t be bullied now or after the 29th of March.”
“Incidents like this, however, are a useful reminder of why we will never agree to be Spanish.”
The GSD also reacted to Sunday’s incursion, saying that it reflected an “unchanging” pattern of behaviour by the Spanish Government.
“It is regrettable and unacceptable that – once again – we have the spectacle of the Spanish navy seeking to encroach on our sovereignty, jurisdiction and control,” said GSD Leader Keith Azopardi.
“It follows other incidents in the past.”
“These incidents also undermine the necessary cooperation that must exist between law enforcement authorities on both sides.”
“Despite British protests about these incidents these continue. It is clear there is a systematic and deliberate campaign to assert control in our waters.”
“There must be an equally determined effort by the UK not to accept such incidents and pursue these diplomatically.”
“It is therefore surprising that a spokesman for the Prime Minister has commented there was no incursion when data from a vessel tracker app seems to clearly indicate otherwise.”
“No-one in Gibraltar will believe the notion that we are dealing with a new Spain when these types of incident continue to occur.”
There were reactions from Gibraltar’s MEPs, including former UKIP MEP Dr Julia Reid, who recalled that Gibraltarians had twice rejected Spanish sovereignty.
“And even though the people of Gibraltar would have preferred the UK to remain a member of the EU, since the referendum their Government has repeatedly ruled out joint sovereignty with Spain,” Dr Reid, who left UKIP to join the Brexit Party, said.
“They’ve even said that ‘if pressed to choose’, Gibraltar would always elect to remain a member of the UK family over access to the single market.”
Dr Reid accused Spain of acting like a “predatory monster” who “doesn’t understand the meaning of No”.
“So how many more times does Gibraltar have to say ‘No’ before they finally get the message?” the MEP added.
“Since the 2016 EU referendum, Spain has become increasingly antagonistic – and I very much doubt that Theresa May’s weakness in the Brexit negotiations, or the EU’s dangerously blasé attitude to Spain’s intimidatory tactics, are doing anything to improve the situation.”
“In fact, the last time a Spanish warship illegally sailed through British waters blasting out the Spanish national anthem a Vice President of the European Parliament, Ramón Luis Valcárcel, published two tweets applauding Spain’s actions before later deleting them.”
“Then, to make matters worse, the EU recently referred to Gibraltar as a ‘British colony’ in a piece of draft legislation they published a few weeks back.”
“Unfortunately, in the past, the UK’s response to illegal incursions of Spanish vessels into Gibraltarian waters hasn’t been as robust as it might have been which is thought to be due to the UK needing Spain’s support in the European Council.”
“Hopefully, should the UK succeed in leaving the EU, we can finally put our foot down.”
“As for the timing of the most recent incident, a cynic might wonder if it has any connection with the Spanish Government calling a snap general election on Friday.”