The European Commission has agreed to dispatch fact finders to the rock of Gibraltar in an effort to reduce the tensions that have flared up between two of the Union’s biggest members; the United Kingdom and Spain.
The fact finding mission is to examine the legitimacy of border controls being imposed on Gibraltan citizens by Spain in an argument that has seen relations sink to their lowest ebb in years. The argument broke out after Gibraltar began the construction of an artificial reef in an effort to boost fish stocks in the territory’s waters, a move that the Spanish say will damage their fishermen’s livelihoods. In retaliation the Spanish imposed new border restrictions which led to both Spanish and Gibraltan residents being stuck at the border crossing for hours in blistering heat.
Gibraltar’s Chief Minister Fabian Picardo accused the Spanish government of creating conflict to distract attention from corruption allegations against the ruling People’s Party.
“In the 19th century, gunboats were used to do politics. Today our aim is to improve the living conditions of our citizens by means of cooperation, Unfortunately, Spanish politicians are currently bringing the situation to a head and therefore making things worse for their own citizens in the surrounding regions” Picardo said.
As well as tightening border controls, Spain has threatened to charge tourists a €50 (£42) border levy, restrict the use of Spanish air space or block Gibraltar’s lucrative ship fuelling business.
The weekend saw a flotilla of Spanish fishing boats take to the seas in protest at the reef and on Monday the UK warship HMS Westminster sailed into Gibraltar’s port. Despite the ship’s arrival being planned months in advance some in Spain have seen its arrival as a provocative act.
The EU observer’s mission will be to try and ease the tension between the two countries over the border controls and to assess if the Spanish are acting illegally under EU law. Britain says that the extra border checks which have led to long delays break the EU’s free movement rules.
A statement from Brussels said: “Both sides agreed that a Commission fact-finding mission should begin as soon as possible to examine the border control/movement of people and goods questions. President Barroso expressed his hope that Spain and the UK will address these matters in a way that is in line with their common membership in the EU.”
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