The British Foreign Office defended the Royal Navy’s decision to order a Spanish warship out of Gibraltar’s disputed territorial waters, the latest spat in the row between the UK and Spain over the enclave’s future after Brexit.
An FCO spokesperson described the incident as an unlawful maritime incursion.
Spain has for centuries been demanding Gibraltar back and does not recognise the waters as sovereign British overseas territory.
A Spanish patrol boat, Infanta Cristina, was told to leave on Tuesday by a Royal Navy unit from the Gibraltar squadron.
Such incursions by the Spanish are frequent and might normally have passed without notice. But Gibraltar’s role in the Brexit negotiations ensured the confrontation was given media prominence, not least as it came days after the former Conservative leader Michael Howard suggested Theresa May should be prepared to go to war to protect the enclave, as Margaret Thatcher had done over the Falklands.
Although Tuesday’s incident was minor, Gibraltar has become such a sensitive issue in the UK that the Ministry of Defence, usually happy to talk about naval matters, passed media requests for information to the FCO.
An FCO spokesperson said: “The Royal Navy challenges all unlawful maritime incursions into British Gibraltar territorial waters – and did so again on this occasion.”
While the FCO language was reasonably robust in describing it as an unlawful incursion, UK diplomats have been generally relaxed about such incidents, not seeing them as a threat that undermines the UK’s legal claim of British sovereignty over Gibraltar.
A spokeswoman for the government of Gibraltar told the Press Association: “The ship entered British/Gibraltarian territorial waters. It was met by the Gibraltar squadron and invited to leave.” The spokeswoman declined to say if Gibraltar would make a formal protest to Spain over the incident.
A short video of the corvette was posted on Gibraltar’s official Twitter page.
The incident came as May and the UK foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, moved to cool tensions, dismissing Howard’s talk of military escalation. The Spanish foreign minister, Alfonso Dastis, had also told the UK to calm down.
However, Spain does not recognise Gibraltar’s territorial waters. Spanish fishing and naval vessels frequently pass close to Gibraltar, and spats and recriminations are not uncommon.
Last November, the Gibraltar squadron’s patrol boat HMS Sabre fired flares at a Spanish research vessel that had strayed into British Gibraltar territorial waters after efforts to contact it by radio failed. The vessel withdrew.
In August 2015, Gibraltar’s chief minister accused the Spanish government of an “outrageous” violation of British sovereignty by sending boats and helicopters into UK waters.
Fabian Picardo said he was “astonished and appalled” after Spanish police made several incursions into British waters while chasing criminals. The Royal Navy helped escort the Servicio de Vigilancia Aduanera (SVA) – the Spanish police’s drugs and money laundering squad – out of British waters after the international row.
A year earlier, a Spanish warship disrupted a British forces parachute training exercise before it was escorted from the area by HMS Sabre.
In August 2013, British military and police boats had to push back a flotilla of about 38 Spanish vessels that were protesting against a concrete reef built by Gibraltar’s government to protect its fish stocks.