The Royal Navy Warship HMS Westminster has sailed into Gibraltar. The frigate is part of task force “Cougar 13” scheduled to take part in a series of pre-planned exercises with allies in the Mediterranean.
She docked in the rock as tensions between Spain and the UK heightened. Prime Minister David Cameron’s spokesman on Monday refused to rule out tit for tat action against Madrid.
It comes 24 hours after more than 40 commercial Spanish boats staged an hour-long protest in Gibraltar waters over a controversial reef that has sparked this latest spat.
Gibraltar authorities sunk 70 concrete blocks into the water for the best environmental reasons they say and to boost stocks. A view contested by Spanish fishermen as one of them explained.
“It is an area which is rich in fish life and the fishing was good. They poured huge concrete blocks in there to prevent us from fishing, “ he said.
Spain reacted swiftly to the creation of the reef imposing strict border controls sparking huge queues and frustration for motorists many of whom commute between the two countries for work.
“The controls are extremely harsh. I think it is a lack of respect for workers. Ten thousand cross the border for work. There are 15,000 Gibraltarians who go to spend their money in supermarkets in La Linea in Spain. So 25,000 people are affected by these controls,” one woman caught in a long queue said.
Last Friday, Prime Minister David Cameron called EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso to raise “serious concerns” over the delays caused at the border and to urge a monitoring group to be dispatched to the area.
Madrid has responded, stressing the controls are part of a clamp down on cigarette smuggling and claims Gibraltar imports volumes of tobacco out of proportion with its consumption. There is no sales tax on the rock so cigarettes cost 60 percent of the price in Spain.
With Spain enveloped in an economic crisis its neighbour boasted growth of nearly eight percent last year, another irritant for Madrid which also bristles at investors seeking refuge on the rock with an advantageous tax system.
Tensions have not run as high for over a decade. The tough talking analysts say could be because Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy wants to distract voters from a major corruption scandal while David Cameron’s supporters are being lured away to the anti- European United Kingdom Independence Party.
Spain disputes UK sovereignty over Gibraltar which has been ruled by Britain since 1713.