The UK’s head-in-the-sand response to Sunday’s serious incursion by the Spanish Navy was as remarkable as it was disappointing.
The Spanish patrol boat Tornado attempted to exercise jurisdiction in British Gibraltar territorial waters by ordering at least two vessels to heave anchor and leave the area. The radio exchange was recorded by a local ship spotter, who recognised the gravity of what had transpired and alerted this newspaper.
We followed the incident as it was unfolding, checking the position of the merchant ships within British waters, tracking the Spanish vessel’s slow transit along the length of the Rock, monitoring the Royal Navy’s response and seeking reaction from authorities.
By the time Gibraltar Squadron deployed, the radio exchange was over and the Spanish vessel was heading out into the Strait of Gibraltar.
The UK initially said the Spanish ship, which sailed in a straight line though Gibraltar waters, was exercising the right of innocent passage and that there was no incursion.
UK officials also played down the fact that weapons on the Spanish ship were manned and uncovered, insisting this was lawful for a warship even while acknowledging privately that it was “provocative”.
But even if one accepted those two positions – and not everybody did – what of the radio exchange? Did the Ministry of Defence’s high-tech monitoring station at Windmill Hill miss it?
In the event, it was only after Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell confirmed what we had been reporting since Sunday that the UK was finally moved to change its response, admitting it was “concerned” that Spain had ordered ships out of British waters and instructing its ambassador in Madrid to raise it with the Spanish Government.
Given the Brexit mess in Westminster and the increasingly-strained discussions with its former EU partners, the UK might be forgiven for wanting to avoid yet another tiresome spat with Spain over Gibraltar.
But quite apart from the sovereignty implications of the Spanish actions on Sunday, the concern here must surely be about navigational safety too.
By trying to impose conflicting orders on merchant ships within Gibraltar’s jurisdiction, Spain risked creating confusion at sea and unnecessary danger in one of the world’s busiest maritime chokepoints.
For that and many other reasons, the UK’s response should have been tougher from the outset.
Both merchant ships acted properly on Sunday, contacting the Gibraltar Port Authority for instructions. Both were told to remain where they were and responded accordingly, ignoring the Spanish vessel.
That in itself speaks volumes.
The crew on the Tornado attempted to exercise jurisdiction in what Madrid says are Spanish waters. But their instructions were questioned and subsequently ignored by two vessels whose crews knew exactly where they were and who was in charge of that anchorage.
Madrid must not be allowed to inject any sense of legal uncertainty into the activities of commercial vessels in British waters around the Rock.
And yet the Spanish action on Sunday was not isolated, as everyone in this community knows. It was simply the latest and most serious in a constant stream of low-level incursions that have now become routine, as have the UK’s diplomatic protests.
This newspaper will always champion a measured response to Spanish provocation. This community must strive for good neighbourly relations and we must never lose the moral high ground, which is built on goodwill and a solid foundation in international law.
There is no doubt about the British sovereignty of Gibraltar’s territorial waters. Nor is there any question that commercial activities in those waters are conducted lawfully and safely under the supervision of the Gibraltar Port Authority.
But by failing to respond robustly, the UK risked emboldening Spain, more so now that Madrid has the rest of the EU standing behind it and we are on our way out. Witness not just Sunday’s incursion, but the statement in the Spanish parliament on Madrid’s objections to construction on reclaimed land.
Outside the EU, the waters around the Rock will become a flashpoint for Spain’s aspirations over Gibraltar and a litmus test for the UK’s response in defence of this community.
No one is seriously calling for gunboat diplomacy in British Gibraltar territorial waters. What we want is cross-border cooperation to tackle the regional threats and challenges that affect us all.
But in the face of actions such as Sunday’s incursion, the UK Government must draw an unequivocal red line and signal that, Brexit or no Brexit, it will not stand for such behaviour from a NATO ally.
MAIN PHOTO: David Parody