William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, has remonstrated with Madrid over claims of deliberate delays to traffic travelling between Gibraltar and Spain, at a time of increased wrangling over the disputed territory.
Mr Hague called Jose Garcia-Margallo, Spain’s minister of foreign affairs, to register “serious concerns” over the treatment of travellers to and from the British territory over the weekend. The fracas follows a dispute earlier in the week which saw Britain accuse Spain of illegal incursions into Gibraltar’s territorial waters.
The Gibraltar government claimed Spain had orchestrated difficulties for travellers making the journey from the Iberian peninsula to the British territory yesterday. That followed two days of “torture” as the Spanish authorities searched “practically every vehicle” leaving Gibraltar, causing delays of up to six hours in stifling 30C (86F) heat, the government said.
It accused Madrid of causing physical harm to travellers, reporting that an ambulance had to be called out to attend to those with medical conditions. On Friday, a Spanish man was taken to hospital with chest pains, the government said. Ministers patrolled the queues on Saturday afternoon handing out water to motorists.
“The Spanish government has inflicted these unnecessary delays on the elderly, children and the infirm in up to 30 degrees of heat,” it complained.
The Foreign Office said that the British ambassador in Madrid had also raised concerns with the government there while Britain had “registered our protest” with the Spanish envoy in London.
“Our main concerns at the moment are restoring people’s basic right to freedom of movement, and we want to work towards a speedy solution that will help to ease the very difficult situation and humanitarian issues at the border and enable a return to normal operations,” a spokesman said.
However the Foreign Office refrained from commenting on suggestions that Spain was retaliating in a tit-for-tat following this week’s row over the creation of an artificial reef in the waters off Gibraltar.
Britain and Spain sparred on Wednesday and Thursday after Gibraltar began work on the the reef by placing concrete blocks into the sea. London accused Spanish Guardia Civil vessels of unlawfully entering British Gibraltar’s territorial waters in an attempt to “disrupt the activities”. Police and naval units were eventually ordered out from Gibraltar to guard the operation.
The Spanish government has yet to comment on the claims. But a Gibraltar resident, David Gibbins, told the BBC that border guards were “checking every bit of paperwork”, which he said was highly unusual.
The territory of some 30,000 residents sees thousands of people travel to and from the island every day for work and tourism.
Spain disputes British sovereignty over Gibraltar and the two governments have been tangling in recent years over what is an increasingly prickly issue. In June, Prime Minister David Cameron confronted Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy at a summit over allegations Spanish Guardia Civil officers took potshots at a jetskier in Gibraltar waters, claims Spain denied.
Gibraltar’s Deputy Chief Minister, Joseph Garcia, said: “Spain has again shown that she cannot resolve issues through normal diplomatic channels.
“Instead she merely resorts to heavy-hand tactics at the frontier. The behaviour of the Spanish authorities is unacceptable, un-European and illegal.”