Outraged British members of Parliament from across the political spectrum reacted with disbelief to the explanations provided by the Spanish Government on the UK diplomatic bags incident at the Gibraltar border and called on the British Government to take a tougher stance in response.
Earlier in the day British Prime Minister David Cameron told the House of Commons that the government had received assurances from Spain that there will be no repetition of the “extremely serious” incident in which the Guardia Civil opened UK diplomatic bags at the Gibraltar border.
The assurance came as Britain warned Spain that any further escalation in tension in the dispute over Gibraltar could be damaging for both countries and the Rock. Instead, the focus should be on setting aside sovereignty to focus on practical cooperation through ‘ad hoc’ dialogue.
The Spanish Government has privately told the UK that the bag was opened in error by a low-ranking officer, despite earlier public comments by Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel García-Margallo dismissing the British protest.
PM Cameron said the incident had been a breach of the principle of state immunity and the principles underlying the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations.
During an emergency debate after Prime Minister’s questions, Europe Minister David Lidington said the UK and Gibraltar continued to press Spain to engage in ‘ad hoc’ talks involving all relevant parties and that there had been “constructive discussions with the Spanish” to that end.
“What would be in the interests of both this country and Spain, as fellow members of Nato and the European Union, would be to take forward talks on practical issues concerning cooperation on matters that affect Gibraltar and the Campo, to park the admitted irreconcilable difference over sovereignty and to focus on the wider agenda, where the UK and Spain have a great deal on which they should be able to work constructively together,” he said.
During the exchanges in the Commons, and in an earlier written statement laid in Parliament, Mr Lidington provided additional details on the bag search at the border which occurred last Friday following months of rising tensions between London and Madrid over Gibraltar.
In response to an urgent Commons question, Mr Lidington said the Spanish blamed “an error at a junior operational level” for what happened. According to the explanation given to the British Government, once the more senior official present realized what was happening, he put a stop to it.
The excuse triggered British lawmakers outrage from across the political spectrum that called on the British Government to take a tougher stance in response.
Former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell said it was “rather an easy explanation” to blame a junior official and said ministers were entitled to press Madrid further.
Tory backbencher Bob Neill accused the Spanish of “stooping to the level of Franco’s government” and said Spain’s explanation for opening the bag “wouldn’t stand muster in Bromley Magistrates’ Court let alone anywhere else.”
His fellow Conservative Andrew Rosindell called for the Spanish ambassador to be expelled from the UK, a proposition that was promptly rejected by Mr Lidington.
For Labor, shadow foreign office minister John Spellar said: “These provocative and unlawful acts are not acceptable to this Parliament and are not acceptable to the British people. They cannot be ignored.”
Veteran Labour MP Sir Gerald Kaufman was also clearly unimpressed by the Spanish explanation. “May I put to you that if this alleged error by a jobs-worth was the only act of interference and aggression by the Spanish authorities on the frontier with Gibraltar it might just get by,” he told Mr Lidington.
“But this is a whole succession of harassment after harassment after harassment and it will not do. The softly, softly approach of this Government is simply not working.”
Sir Gerald said that if anything like this ever happened again, “the Spanish ambassador should be expelled from this country.”