The strategic importance of Gibraltar does not require any explanation. In July the Ministry of Defence announced it is to spend £2 million upgrading its maritime monitoring facility overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar. Sitting high above Europa Point the facility keeps an eye on 60,000 ships entering or leaving the Mediterranean or crossing between Africa and Europe. It plays a crucial role detecting any suspicious activity in British Gibraltar Territorial Waters and logs all unlawful incursions by Spanish state vessels, as well as detecting the shipping of narcotics into Europe and combating the nefarious illegal transport of drugs and tobacco. Windmill Hill Signal Station, with its panoramic view, keeps an eye on traffic visually, over the radio and electronically. It feeds information back to the UK and its allies about all these activities and military movements.
Gibraltar is lightly defended, but this does not diminish the importance of its airfield and harbour, with three dry-docks, still capable of sheltering large naval fleets and task forces. This is much appreciated by the US Navy, with the Government of Gibraltar having very cordial relations with members of the US Congress. For the Royal Navy it remains an important supply and forwarding base. These military facilities could not be sustained without the support of the inhabitants of Gibraltar, who stubbornly resist the efforts of the Spanish Government to bring them under their jurisdiction. They are not Spanish, being over 300 years a fusion of Genoese, Maltese and Portuguese incomers needed to support and maintain the fortress. There is an infusion of British and Irish that have intermarried to create a nation that is predominantly Catholic. It is this Catholicism that has created a tolerant and respectful society welcoming of small but significantly important Jewish, Moroccan Muslim and Indian Hindu communities. Spain ceded Gibraltar to the British Crown in 1713 following its capture by a joint British and Dutch force in 1704. Fifty years ago, in a referendum, the people of the British Territory voted to remain British and two years later adopted a Constitution that guaranteed they would never pass to Spanish sovereignty.
Following the General Election in June this year, I wrote to the Prime Minister setting out ten points for immediate action in relation to Gibraltar:-
“Dear Prime Minister,
The CDP is particularly concerned with regard to the situation of the Overseas Territory of Gibraltar during and after the negotiations and agreement arising from the invoking of Article 50 of the TEU.
Gibraltar’s relations with its neighbour have been fraught with problems, regardless of the make up of the Spanish Government. I have been a regular and frequent visitor to the Territory since 2002 and I am well acquainted with the concerns and fears of its citizens.
It is understandable that those fears played a major part in their overwhelming Referendum vote to remain in the European Union. It is also admirable, notwithstanding that vote, they and the Government of Gibraltar are committed to the process for exiting the EU.
It is inevitable that negotiations with the European Commission will be difficult, and in relation to Gibraltar more so as the Spanish Government seeks to gain an advantage as it pursues its territorial claim contrary to the Treaty of Utrecht. Problems at the land border are intermittent but are too frequent to be more than technical in nature.
Non-innocent passage and incursions in to British Gibraltar Territorial Waters by Spanish State vessels, and commercial boats, are persistent and contrary to UNCLOS. Added to which there have been recent incursions in to Gibraltar’s airspace by Spanish military aircraft.
These behaviours are non-friendly and not befitting of an EU and NATO partner.
The difficulty and potential for the Spanish Government to exercise its normal veto in relation to the Commission’s final draft agreement is obvious. That they have been given a double veto by virtue of a new clause 24 in the European Council’s guidelines of 29th April is an affront to the normal rules of diplomacy. It is for that reason, and also to reassure the people of Gibraltar, we are putting forward a list of actions that are unilateral in nature but will bring comfort to British Gibraltar.
First, we would ask you to consider visiting Gibraltar in person, to directly address and reassure its citizens in Casemates Square, during the National Day celebrations this coming September. Also, you would be afforded the opportunity to familiarise yourself with the situations causing concern and hear first-hand the views of ordinary citizens. While I know that you would receive a warm welcome, there would be objections from the Spanish Government who were very agitated when condemning David Cameron’s abortive and cut-short visit. Apparently from their perspective the Prime Minister of the UK is not allowed to visit the Territory.
Second, those members of the Cabinet who have not previously visited Gibraltar should also be encouraged to visit the Territory to acquaint themselves with the geography and to be briefed and familiarised with the real facts and difficulties. Dare I also venture to suggest the holding of a Cabinet meeting on the Rock.
Third, it was in 1954 that Her Majesty the Queen made her first and only visit to Gibraltar. Another visit is long overdue. Again, there would be Spanish Government objections, but given the current situation this is a necessity. It would also be an affront to Gibraltarians if a reciprocal State visit to Spain by the Queen was not followed by a visit to her Territory in the Iberian Penisular.
Fourth, additional visits by members of the Royal Family to Gibraltar should be programmed. Visits by HRH the Princess Royal and the Earl and Countess of Wessex have been very successful and warmly recieved. These visits help to bolster the morale of the population.
Fifth, there is the vexed question of the territorial limit of BGTW and UNCLOS. Gibraltar is one of a handful of territories that has the minimum three-mile limit where its geography permits. On the East side there is no natural restriction to extending it to the twelve-mile limit. That this has not been done is down to political and diplomatic reasons. Whether this is done before or after the UK exit from the EU would not normally be a problem. However, you are dealing with ‘Spanish Practices’ and as such you can be assured that if the proper notice in accordance with UNCLOS is not observed and completed before exit it will be an ongoing issue for Spain and a sore for another three hundred years.“
The remaining part of this letter – dealing with defence and security issues – will be published in the next Gibraltar post. The Prime Minister has acknowleged the letter and it was forwarded to the Foreign Office for a ministerial reply. This was duly received from Sir Alan Duncan MP, Foreign Office minister with responsibility for Europe and the Americas. This stated the standard UK position in relation to Gibraltar. He was not able to speculate on any future Royal visits, but acknowledged the important anniversary of this year’s Gibraltar Day and how Ministers might participate. He was clear that there was no plan at present to extend BGTW to twelve nautical miles but the option to do so was retained. We can now judge how the Goverment actually responded by the local news-media reports listed below for your information. The CDP would have and will in the future act in a manner set out in our letter.