A dangerous game at the mouth of the Med

By Victor Mallet, Madrid correspondent

There are few easier ways to inflame Spanish nationalism than to talk about Gibraltar, the tiny British possession at the mouth of the Mediterranean, and that is exactly what the Spanish right has been doing with increasing intensity for the past few months.

None of this has much do with events in Gibraltar itself, where apes continue to gambol on the Rock, Spanish shoppers still cross the frontier to buy cheap alcohol and British holidaymakers consume their fish and chips. The idea is to humiliate Spain’s Socialist government by portraying it as weak on a vital matter of sovereignty and pride.

It is hardly the first time that a foreign enclave has been used in this way for domestic political ends. Think of the way the Chinese Communist party once stoked nationalist feelings over Hong Kong and Macao. Spain’s own enclaves in north Africa are a perpetual irritant to Morocco. And Gibraltar itself is no stranger to pressure from Spain in modern times.

But it is a dangerous game to play with naval vessels and armed men between two members of an otherwise peaceful European Union.

The protagonists are the marine units of Spain’s Guardia Civil. Since June this year – not coincidentally, this was shortly before a controversial visit to Gibraltar by Miguel Angel Moratinos, the Spanish foreign minister detested by the right – they have repeatedly carried out provocative operations in disputed waters.

Tensions came to a head this week when armed Guardia Civil men, said to be pursuing suspected drug traffickers, actually landed on Gibraltar soil and were arrested by the Gibraltar police, forcing a rapid apology from the Spanish interior minister.

The word in Gibraltar, according to one official, is that there are “rogue elements” in the Guardia Civil. The British would say that, perhaps, but nothing the Spanish have done or said so far contradicts the view that the Guardia Civil is acting without the authority of the Spanish government.  “We hope this incident is not repeated,” was all that Mr Moratinos said. The right-wing opposition Popular party condemned the government’s climbdown, while El Mundo, the right-wing newspaper, has given fulsome support to the Guardia Civil’s maritime harassment campaign.

Spain, which ceded Gibraltar at the Treaty in Utrecht in 1713, has long claimed the waters around the Rock, but for most of the intervening three centuries de facto control has been exercised by the British. The dictator Francisco Franco even laid a line of buoys across the bay between Gibraltar and Algeciras to mark a dividing line when he isolated the British enclave.

The Guardia Civil, or parts of it, have evidently decided to disrupt the status quo. Unless the two sides return to what Peter Caruana, Gibraltar’s chief minister, calls the “political equilibrium” of the past century, there is a risk that someone will be hurt or killed in a military confrontation. That would turn a manageable dispute over sovereignty into a much more serious diplomatic conflict.