Madrid defiant over probe into Gibraltar border delays

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Series Details Vol 7, No.2, 11.1.01, p7
Publication Date 11/01/2001
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Date: 11/01/01

By Rory Watson

THE Spanish government is facing the threat of embarrassing legal action over border delays inflicted on travellers entering the country from Gibraltar.

In an attempt to head off a case before the European Court of Justice, Madrid has responded to a European Commission request for a full explanation of the frontier checks.

Neither side would reveal the contents of the reply this week, but a Spanish spokeswoman rejected suggestions that the controls were politically motivated because of the dispute between Spain and the UK over sovereignty of the Rock.

"You must remember this is an EU external frontier and that places responsibilities on Spain," she said. "The time spent with each person is no more than you would experience when you arrive at an EU airport. The problem lies in the very high number of people who cross the border. It is a quantitative, not qualitative, matter."

With approximately seven million crossings a year - equivalent to 19,000 every day - the average waiting time for vehicles is around 40 minutes. But this rises sharply during peak periods. Last summer a German tourist died after queuing for two-and-a-half hours in the sweltering heat.

Justice and Home Affairs Commissioner Antonio Vitórino, however, has already made clear that he is not satisfied with present arrangements. "The Commission considers that the checks conducted at the border which lead to these delays could not be proportionate to the legal and practical objectives they are intended to pursue," he recently told British Conservative MEP Lord Bethell.

This prompted the Commission to take the unprecedented step of launching the first stage in potential legal proceedings against Spain by asking it to justify the "particular measures" it enforces on the border with Gibraltar.

The initiative has been warmly welcomed by the Euro Citizen Action Service (ECAS), which campaigns to ensure individuals benefit from the European Union and in particular from its provisions on free movement. "This action is long overdue, but it is still a courageous step by the Commission as there is strong pressure to regard this as a purely Spanish-British issue over sovereignty," said ECAS Director Tony Venables.

"For the first time the Commission has shown that it is prepared to take decisive action on border controls. That is important for enlargement."

ECAS has received a stream of complaints from Gibraltar since it launched a hotline in 1993 aimed at tackling EU border control issues. Last summer it sent its dossier to the Commission after the European Ombudsman refused to act on the grounds that the issue was too political.

The UK and Spain settled some of their differences on Gibraltar last April, but did not address border controls.

The Spanish government is facing the threat of embarrassing legal action over border delays inflicted on travellers entering the country from Gibraltar.

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