7th Aug 2020

Spanish border checks on Gibraltar not illegal, EU says

  • Spain and the UK have disputed the sovereignty of Gibraltar since the 1700s (Photo:

Spain's border checks on Gibraltar have not broken EU law, the European Commission said on Friday (15 November) in response to a simmering dispute between Madrid and the UK government.

Spanish border authorities tightened routine controls on the land border in a tit-for-tat exchange, which saw Gibraltar authorities drop concrete blocks off the coast to create an artificial reef, after complaining that Spanish fishermen were encroaching into their waters.

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The extra checks at a border which sees 10,000 cars per day has caused long delays and traffic jams at the crossing.

The Spanish government claims that the checks are needed to combat rising levels of tobacco smuggling from Gibraltar, where cigarettes are around 40 percent cheaper than in Spain - 139 million smuggled cigarettes from Gibraltar were seized by authorities in 2012.

The UK says that the checks, which last around four hours, are "disproportionate and politically motivated."

The UK and Spain have disputed the sovereignty of the territory, which has been used by UK as a military base, for centuries.

Despite refusing to blame either Spain or the UK in the border dispute or speaking out on the concrete blocks, the EU executive has sent letters to both capitals recommending actions to resolve the problem, and promising to revisit the case in six months.

The commission stepped into the row in September following a series of complaints about the length and nature of the checks by Spanish border guards at the frontier town of La Linea de la Conception where the one crossing to Gibraltar is located.

In its letter to the UK's EU ambassador, seen by this website, the EU executive calls on London to increase "non systematic and risk-analysis based checks on travellers and their belongings" in a bid to crack down on smuggling.

Meanwhile, Spain was told to improve the traffic flows by using more lanes at the crossing point.

It was also told to reduce random border checks and to "develop the exchange of information with the United Kingdom on tobacco smuggling."

But despite the commission's attempts at diplomacy, both sides claimed vindication by the EU executive.

The UK's Europe minister David Lidington said that the commission's call on Spain to improve the functioning of the Gibraltar-Spain border and follow up within six months "further demonstrates their ongoing concern."

“We remain confident that the Spanish government has acted – and continues to act – unlawfully, through introducing disproportionate and politically motivated checks at the Gibraltar-Spain border," he said.

A UK official told EUobserver that the EU executive's move was unsurprising, commenting that Spanish border checks had been significantly reduced during the commission's visit.

"It's not surprising that the commission didn't want to infringe Spain over an issue that is so politically charged," he noted, adding that the UK would continue to collect evidence to prove lawbreaking by Spain.

For its part, Spain was "satisfied because Brussels has signalled that we did not break any community rules by establishing those controls at the Gibraltar border," the country's deputy prime minister, Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, said.

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