Spain sparks diplomatic row over UK MPs sovereign operation in Gibraltar

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In an unexpected diplomatic move, Spain has issued a note verbale to the United Kingdom, expressing strong objections to the presence of approximately 20 British MPs dressed in military uniforms and “deployed on sovereignty operations” aboard two British Royal Navy vessels, the HMS Cutlass and the HMS Dagger, within Spanish waters outside Gibraltar.

The incident occurred on June 19, when the British MPs embarked at the military port of Gibraltar and were transported to Punta Europa, situated at the southern tip of the territory.

According to the British Forces in Gibraltar, the purpose of their visit was to provide legislators with an opportunity to familiarise themselves with the army’s facilities.

“The highlight of this Navy-focused visit naturally fell to the Royal Navy’s Gibraltar Squadron,” stated the Royal Navy, highlighting the parliamentarians’ experience of thrilling speeds of 40 knots around Europa Point.

The Spanish Foreign Ministry responded to questions from Europa Sur, confirming the issuance of a note verbale to protest the visit of the British MPs.

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The note reiterated Spain’s sovereignty over the waters surrounding Gibraltar, which were not ceded in the Treaty of Utrecht, and stressed the United Nations doctrine regarding military presence in non-self-governing territories.

It read: “In the case of the visit of the British MPs, a note verbale of protest has been sent, reiterating Spanish sovereignty over the waters around the Rock, and the United Nations doctrine on military presence in non-self-governing territories.”

Moreover, the Spanish government has voiced its concern over the continued presence of British nuclear submarines in Gibraltar, further expressing its protest.

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A spokesperson for Spain’s Foreign Ministry emphasized that Spain consistently conveys its unease to the British authorities during their contacts and has repeatedly requested greater guarantees.

The issuance of the note verbale represents the mildest diplomatic measure through which one government expresses its dissatisfaction to another concerning a specific event. However, it stems from a series of actions by the United Kingdom and Gibraltar that have strained relations with Spain. These incidents coincide with the stalled negotiations for an agreement between the European Union and the UK regarding Gibraltar after Brexit.

Multiple Spanish sources emphasise that, in addition to the visit by the MPs and the increased presence of warships in Gibraltar, the “sovereignty patrol” conducted on July 3 by Gibraltar’s governor, David Steel, aboard another Royal Navy vessel in the waters surrounding the territory, must also be taken into account.

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The sources consulted view the UK’s behaviour as deliberate and repeated provocations that hinder the establishment of a “zone of shared prosperity” between Gibraltar and the Campo de Gibraltar, the region adjacent to the border fence. It is worth noting that it would be inconceivable for a delegation of Spanish senators and deputies to wear Spanish Navy uniforms, board a patrol boat, and officially visit to assert Spanish sovereignty over its waters.

The sources add that the continuous rebuffs from Britain and Gibraltar do not aid Spain in maintaining the suspension of Schengen controls at the border. This exceptional measure, enacted by the Spanish government and the EU as a goodwill gesture, allows Gibraltarians to enter Spain without passport control or the need to declare their purpose of visit, similar to other non-EU citizens.

The Spanish Foreign Ministry is currently considering its response to David Steel’s “sovereignty patrol”, which was deliberately orchestrated and carried out under direct instruction from British authorities, as evident from the publicity it has garnered in various publications.

Additional reporting by Maria Ortega.

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