The British Government has no plans “at present” to extend British territorial waters around the Rock but does not rule out doing so in the future. The position was revealed in a statement by David Lidington, Britain’s Minister for Europe, in response to a question in the House of Commons.
“We have no plans at present to extend British Gibraltar Territorial Waters to 12 nautical miles but we retain the option to do so, as enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, UNCLOS,” Mr Lidington said.
Britain claims three miles of territorial sea around the Rock but was asked by the Gibraltar Government last December to extend it to 12 miles under the UN convention.
The request came against the background of tension over persistent Guardia Civil incursions and Spanish efforts to designate an EU nature site in British waters. The Gibraltar Government has held meetings with UK officials from across Whitehall departments to consider the request.
The officials are looking at numerous different aspects of what an extension to the territorial sea would entail, not just in political but in practical terms.
This includes assessing what resources would be required to enforce jurisdiction and comply with UNCLOS responsibilities in a wider area of sea.
Mr Lidington told the Commons there had been 176 “unlawful incursions” by Spanish state vessels between November 1, 2012, and April 30, 2013. That amounts to almost one a day on average.
Asked what Britain was doing about it, Mr Lidington repeated the now standard line: the Royal Navy challenged the Guardia Civil whenever its vessels made illegal incursions into Gibraltar waters.
“We also make formal diplomatic protests to the Spanish Government about all such incursions,” he said and insisted that “we will continue to do all that is necessary to uphold British sovereignty over British Gibraltar Territorial Waters”.
Mr Lidington also told the Commons that the British Government would react formally to recent criticism of the UK’s response to the incursions and the fishing dispute.
The British scientist leading the study into fisheries in Gibraltar waters, Dr Chris Tydeman, Chairman of the UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum and author of the long-awaited fishing report commissioned by the Gibraltar Government, told a Commons select committee that Britain was failing to enforce Gibraltar’s marine nature laws for fear of upsetting Spain.
Mr Lidington said officials in his department were in regular discussion with the Gibraltar Government and supported its efforts to resolve the fishing dispute, “encouraging all parties to show restraint and cooperate with the Government of Gibraltar.”
“The UK Government has a single policy on Gibraltar, which is agreed across Whitehall Departments including the Ministry of Defence and discussed with the Governor,” he said.
“I will write to the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee about the Gibraltar-related issues raised in the oral evidence that the Committee has taken from Dr Tydeman” pledged Mr Lidington.