Wednesday, August 19th 2009 - 04:57 UTC

Spain/UK to cross swords in Gibraltar waters legal challenge before EC

Spain plans to help the European Commission fend off a legal challenge by Gibraltar over a decision relating to the Rock’s territorial waters, reports the Gibraltar Chronicle. Lawyers representing the Spanish government filed an application to join the controversial case last Friday, a day after the British government confirmed that it would support Gibraltar in court.

Gibraltar is challenging EC’s approval of Spanish request designating most of Gibraltar’s territorial waters as one of Spain’s protected nature sites under EU law

The legal challenge before the European Court of Justice is between the Gibraltar Government and the European Commission, but the involvement of Britain and Spain as interested parties underscores the critical importance of the issues at stake.

At the heart of the case lies a thorny quarrel over the sovereignty of Gibraltar waters, which Britain claims and Spain disputes.

The Gibraltar Government is challenging the Commission’s decision last December to approve a Spanish request designating most of Gibraltar’s territorial waters as one of Spain’s protected nature sites under EU law.

In doing so, the Commission ignored the fact that Britain has jurisdiction over these waters and had already designated part of them as a European protected site in 2006. The Gibraltar Government, backed by the UK, will argue that the EC’s decision was wrong in international and European law and was based on errors of fact. They will ask the European court to annul the Spanish designation where it overlaps British waters and order Brussels to pay costs.

The Commission will defend its position and, in doing so, will be backed by Spain.

Yesterday a spokeswoman for Spain’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs in Madrid confirmed that the Spanish government would intervene in the case in support of the EC. Spain would defend “the legal actions and principles” that underpinned the Commission’s approval of the Spanish nature designation, she told the Chronicle.

She declined to add any further detail because this was an ongoing legal case.

Britain and Spain have long held differing views on the sovereign status of the waters around Gibraltar but have always skirted around the issue and avoided resolving it in court. This case could change that, with the EU court forced by default to tackle complex and sensitive sovereignty matters.

In a preliminary court filing, the Gibraltar Government contended that “…the Commission made manifest errors of law in that…it has designated an area of one Member State, British Gibraltar Territorial Waters, as forming part of another Member State, Spain.”

The Spanish designation, known as Estrecho Oriental, covers the waters off the east side of the Rock and south of Europa Point, exactly the same areas included in the EU list by the UK in 2006.

Among other issues, the official summary of Gibraltar’s case said the new Spanish site created a situation where two separate and distinct legal, penal, administrative and monitoring regimes applied – in theory at least - within the same area.

The document also signalled that Gibraltar and Britain believe the EC’s decision was based on “false and misleading” information.

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