Spain cleared over Gibraltar checks
Published 15/11/2013 | 14:16
The Government has expressed disappointment after the European Commission found Spain has broken no EU rules by stepping up checks on the border crossing into Gibraltar.
The commission sent a team to investigate after a row broke out in the summer when Spanish authorities tightened frontier controls, allegedly to crack down on tobacco smuggling.
But the move came after Gibraltar had created an artificial reef off its coast, angering Spanish fishermen.
Today a commission report said there was no evidence that the Spanish government at the border had breached any EU rules by initiating blanket checks on cross-border movements.
"We are disappointed," said a UK Government spokesman. "Our position is that the action Spain has taken is illegal."
But the Government welcomed the fact that the commission recommends that Spain carry out "targeted" checks in future "in order to reduce the large amount of random border controls".
However the report also recommends the UK Government take action to ensure "non-systematic checks" on travellers and their belongings leaving Gibraltar, based on risk-analysis, as well as developing "exchange of intelligence on tobacco smuggling" with Spain.
The report gives both sides six months to respond to the recommendations, and Brussels "reserves the right" to revise its view on the legality of Spanish action and "pay another visit" to the Spain-Gibraltar crossing point if necessary.
The commission said today it had received many complaints about delays of up to eight hours at the Gibraltar frontier caused by Spain's strict checking system - imposed, the UK Government believes, as direct retaliation for the creation of the artificial reef made up of 74 concrete blocks dropped into the sea in disputed waters.
The UK says the move was intended to improve the sea life environment. Spain claims it was part of longstanding tensions between the UK and Spain over fishing rights .
Giles Chichester, Ashley Fox and Julie Girling, Conservative MEPs for the South West of England and Gibraltar, described the findings as "deeply disappointing and questionable".
"It seems likely that Spain has effectively behaved itself for the time the inspectors were there. This is not surprising...the law rarely gets broken when the police are around," they said.
"Of course the conclusion is deeply disappointing and we do not believe that this questionable report reflects adequately what has happened there. In effect, this inspection has failed.
"We now insist that the Commission must continue monitoring what happens at this crossing, but in future we believe the inspectors should work discreetly and unannounced."
The MEPs described the management of the border crossing between Spain and Gibraltar as "challenging, in view of the heavy traffic volumes in a relatively confined space and the increase in tobacco smuggling into Spain".