The row between Britain and Spain over Gibraltar went up a notch on Monday as London mulled legal action over “totally disproportionate” border checks and Madrid threatened to turn to the UN.
As the threats were made over the British-held territory, British warships began setting sail for the Mediterranean for a naval exercise that will see the frigate HMS Westminster dock in Gibraltar.
Helicopter carrier HMS Illustrious steamed out of Portsmouth, to be followed yesterday by the type-23 frigate Westminster, which is set to arrive in Gibraltar within a week.
The British Ministry of Defence has stressed that the deployment of the ships for the exercise is “routine” and “long planned.”
However, in a hardening of Britain’s tone, a spokesman for British Prime Minister David Cameron said the government was considering taking legal action over the checks by Spanish guards on the border of the rocky outpost on Spain’s south coast.
The spokesman said the checks, which have caused tailbacks of several hours for people trying to cross the border, were “politically motivated and totally disproportionate.”
“Clearly the prime minister is disappointed by the failure of Spain to remove the additional border checks this weekend. We are now considering what legal action is open to us,” the spokesman said, adding that Britain was considering whether to take “unprecedented” action against a fellow EU member.
“If we go down this route, we will certainly press the EU to pursue the case as a matter of urgency,” he added.
Spain has refused to stop the checks, which it said were “legal and proportionate.”
Ignacio Ibanez, director general for foreign affairs at Spain’s foreign ministry, said the legal threat was causing little concern.
“We are not worried because we are convinced about what we are doing and we know that the right is on our side,” Ibanez told BBC Radio 4.
The threat from London came after Spain said it was considering taking the row over the disputed territory to global bodies such as the UN and the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
A foreign ministry spokesman said Madrid was “evaluating the possibility of going to bodies like United Nations [or] the Security Council, the court in The Hague.”
However, he said that “no decision has been taken” on the possible course of action.
In a potential headache for the UK, Spain is considering forming a united front with Argentina, which is embroiled in its own dispute with Britain over the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands, or Las Malvinas as they are known in Spanish.
The government of Gibraltar has accused Madrid of acting in retaliation after it built an artificial concrete reef which it says is aimed at boosting fish stocks, but that Spain says is designed to keep out Spanish fishing boats.
Writing in the Sun newspaper on Monday, UK Minister of State for Europe David Lidington said: “Britain and Spain matter to each other. We are NATO allies, key trading partners, and millions of Brits travel to Spain every year.”
“But our good friendship with Spain does not mean we will turn a blind eye when the people of Gibraltar are threatened or put under pressure,” he wrote.