A Spanish ship illegally encroached on Gibraltar’s territorial waters Tuesday, amid rapidly deteriorating relations with the U.K. following Prime Minister Theresa May’s signing of Article 50 to launch the fraught exit from the European Union.
Upon the illegal foray into the British Overseas Territory’s sovereign waters — a topic of fraught debate between Britain and Spain for decades — the official government account for Gibraltar tweeted a brief video clip of the vessel, with the caption:
“Illegal incursion into #British #Gibraltar Territorial Waters by Spanish Navy patrol ship Infanta Cristina this afternoon. #BGTW”
— HM Govt of Gibraltar (@GibraltarGov) April 4, 2017
A spokeswoman for the Gibraltar government told the press, “The ship entered British/Gibraltarian territorial waters. It was met by the Gibraltar Squadron and invited to leave.”
According to Express, a British ship far smaller in size intercepted the Infanta Cristina and chased it from the area.
“The status of the waters around Gibraltar continue to be debated,” The Independent explains. “Spain has previously suggested that the UK can claim only the rock and not the water that surrounds it, while Gibraltar itself believes it owns the surrounding sea.
“Occasionally that disputed status has led to flare-ups, when Spanish military and tourist vessels have entered into water that is claimed by Gibraltar.”
Beyond the refuted waters, Gibraltar shot to the top of the news recently when a document pertaining to the impending Brexit intimated The Rock — an informal name for the tiny peninsula, referencing its most prominent feature — would be at the mercy of Spain’s veto power for any future trade deals.
How a U.K. independent of the European Union will conduct trade, diplomacy, and other interactions with the rest of the world must be hammered out as thoroughly as possible before the completion of Brexit.
Gibraltar, a dependency of the United Kingdom since 1967, retains substantial independence and separation from Spain while receiving support and defense from the controlling nation — and Gibraltarians like it that way. In June 2016, a breathtaking 99 percent of Gibraltarians voted to remain a part of the U.K. — while 96 percent voted not to leave the E.U.
Further, the bold maritime incursion by Spain came one day after former Conservative leader Michael Howard suggested Prime Minister Theresa May is prepared to go to war over the geostrategically vital land.
“Thirty-five years ago this week,” Howard told a reporter during an interview, quoted by NPR, “another woman prime minister sent a task force halfway across the world to defend the freedom of another small group of British people against another Spanish-speaking country and I’m absolutely certain that our current prime minister will show the same resolve in standing by the people of Gibraltar.”
In that comparison, Howard referenced an eerily similar dispute — one which, oddly enough, became a full-scale military conflict exactly 35 years ago, April 2 — over the British territories of the Falkland Islands and the South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, saying May would act as former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had in taking all steps necessary to defend the territory.
Argentina invaded the Falklands by sea on April 2, 1982, sparking all-out war with the U.K., which sought to preserve the South Atlantic islands under its distant governance. Fighting lasted just 74 days and ended with an Argentine surrender and the return of full control the U.K.
This small but bloody conflict might have faded from headlines decades ago, but the U.K.’s dispute with Spain over Gibraltar not only summons the specter of the Falklands War, but might have reignited a bit of that caustic tension with Argentina.
Ironically enough, the decades-old incendiary rivalry also returned to the forefront because of Brexit talks — and Argentina, like Spain, appears poised to flex muscles and potentially wrest control of the disputatious land from Britain’s clutches.
“We will never cease to claim what belongs to us. Not one single day of our lives are we going to let our arms down,” Argentine Minister of Interior Affairs Rogelio Frigerio attested this week, cited by Express.
“Let these 35 years help us look to the future and find intelligent paths to advance in our legitimate claim over the Islands’ sovereignty.”
Like Gibraltar thousands of miles away in the northern hemisphere, Falkland Islanders mostly support and advocate for the current British control; however, neither country felt favorably of Brexit in last June’s referendum.
Argentina — again, like Spain — reportedly views the chaos of the U.K.’s grand egress from the E.U. as an opportunity to exert influence, even of the highest order, if necessary.
“We are here to confirm our conviction that someday we will stop thinking of our Islands as some distant dream, and so that the community continues to sustain a standing live homage to the heroes of the motherland,” Frigerio asserted.
For all the posturing over Gibraltar — which was ceded to Great Britain by treaty in 1713 — it isn’t likely to spark a full military conflict. May has since downplayed Howard’s statement comparing her doggedness to Thatcher’s, laughing off the suggestion without explicitly denying what was said.
The Falklands, however, could yet become a flashpoint thanks to the contentious Brexit proceedings — particularly with the government of Argentina considering pouncing on the opportunity.
Frigerio pointed out that “law, geography, history, the past, present and future support our sovereignty claim of the Islands,” and — perhaps portentously — added, “we will return to our Islands following the path that leads the nations of the world: dialogue, truth, the law and justice.”