The European Commission, having sparked a diplomatic row by approving a Spanish nature site within British Gibraltar waters, now wants Britain and Spain to draw up a “joint management plan” for marine conservation in the area, reports the Gibraltar Chronicle.
In a statement that ignores the sensitivities of the historic dispute over the sovereignty of Gibraltar waters, environment commissioner Stavros Dimas said the EC would help broker the plan if both countries “consider it appropriate”.
But Mr Dimas laced the call for dialogue with a reminder that designation of EU nature sites brought with it legal obligations.
“The Commission stresses that obligations arise from the inclusion of a site in the Natura 2000 network of protected areas and that it is for each Member State claiming territorial rights to exercise their responsibilities under the Habitats Directive,” Mr Dimas said.
Europe’s environment commissioner was responding to a parliamentary question from Graham Watson, Gibraltar’s Liberal Democrat MEP, about the EC’s controversial decision to designate a Spanish EU protected nature site within British Gibraltar territorial waters.
Gibraltar, backed by the UK, is taking the Commission to court over its decision to approve the Spanish nature site, which overlaps an existing British one.
Gibraltar and the UK reacted furiously to the EC’s decision and saw it as a direct threat to British sovereignty over the waters. Britain claims three miles of territorial sea around Gibraltar, but Spain insists those waters are Spanish.
In his answer to Mr Watson, Mr Dimas played down those concerns.
“As far as the Commission understands, the territorial dispute between Spain and the United Kingdom in relation to the marine waters off Gibraltar is long standing, predating the accession of both Member States, with both countries claiming sovereignty in relation to this geographic area,” Mr Dimas said.
“The Commission does not consider that [the EU directive] on the conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora is an appropriate mechanism to resolve such disputes between Member States in relation to sovereignty claims over the same territory.”
“Nor does the Commission consider that the listing of the overlapping United Kingdom site “Southern Waters of Gibraltar” and the Spanish site “Estrecho Oriental” as Sites of Community Importance for the Mediterranean Region changes the situation in relation to these disputing sovereignty claims, which ultimately will have to be resolved under appropriate international and bilateral mechanisms.”
As if oblivious to the underlying political wrangle, Mr Dimas also said that the listing of two marine sites off Gibraltar demonstrated that both the UK and Spain recognised the ecological value of the waters.
“The Commission has indicated to both the United Kingdom and Spain that it is willing to facilitate a process of dialogue and any joint initiatives that they are willing to undertake with a view to ensuring the conservation and management of the disputed marine territory off Gibraltar, including, if they consider appropriate, work on the preparation of a joint management plan for the protection and attainment of the conservation objectives for the site,” Mr Dimas said.
“The Commission has invited the two Member States concerned to engage in such a process and stands ready to respond positively to any steps in that regard”.