Divisive issue: Gibraltar is a bone of contention between Britain and Spain.
Gibraltar yet again hit the international headlines during the past European summer and many reckoned it was just another silly season story. But I am afraid this is not a mere ''summer snake'', a piece of news to fill papers in the slack period, as we call these in Spain Gibraltar will always be an issue as long as Spain and Britain are not able to advance and solve its main problem involving sovereignty.
Notwithstanding, bilateral relations between Madrid and London remain as tight as ever. Partners in the European Union and allies in NATO, our countries have forged a rich, multifaceted relationship. The attraction of Britons for Spain is possibly comparable only with their fascination for Australia. More than a million British citizens - of whom less than 20 per cent are over 65 - have permanently or temporarily made their home in Spain, making it the preferred country to live in, over the US, Canada and Ireland.
Annual air traffic between our two countries - 30 million passengers - is busier than flows between Canada and the US. This helps in understanding why British Airways and Iberia merged three years ago. Many other examples could be easily mentioned to highlight the strength of our business relations: Banco Santander's third place ranking among Britain's private financial institutions; Telefonica and Vodafone are respectively the second-ranked mobile phone operators in Britain and Spain; the management by the Spanish infrastructure company Ferrovial of Heathrow and other British airports.
But, unlike what happens with most of our closest partners, there is an unsolved issue that casts a shadow and sets a limit to the otherwise close relationship between London and Madrid: Gibraltar, the last colony in Europe.
Precisely 300 years have passed since the signature of the Utrecht Treaty by which Spain ceded Gibraltar to Britain. Since those days, the dispute over the territory of Gibraltar has been a major historical controversy between the two countries. Although there have been many United Nations General Assembly resolutions backing Spain's claims, the core question of the dispute, sovereignty, is still not resolved. Furthermore, many other collateral issues (environment protection, fisheries, trade, taxation, finance, air control, communications, etc) intermittently loom and generate irritation in Spain.
So, despite the otherwise excellent ties, Gibraltar remains a nagging annoyance. More colloquially, as we say in Spanish, it is ''a stone in the shoe'' that constantly reminds us Spaniards that no matter how much closer the two nations move, there is still something not quite right between us.
The latest source of friction has been the dumping by the Gibraltarian government of a series of metal-spiked concrete blocks, which prevent Spanish fishermen from operating where they have always done, in waters off the isthmus connecting Gibraltar to mainland Spain - an area not considered in the Utrecht Treaty. Furthermore, the projected construction of two new 50-metre jetties on the eastern side of the Rock of Gibraltar would create unacceptable changes in the configuration of the areas defined by the treaty.
As recent polls have revealed, 93 per cent of the Spanish public considers these unilateral, unannounced actions to be very or quite serious and two-thirds would support a firm policy against them. The Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo, recently stated that trust in the Gibraltarian authorities had been broken and urged the British government to engage in bilateral talks over these and other related breaches in international obligations ("We need to talk about Gibraltar", The Wall Street Journal, August 19).
Of all the illicit trafficking that comes out of Gibraltar, tobacco smuggling is the most common. If the official statistics are right, each adult Gibraltarian would smoke more than 40 packs of cigarettes a day. Of course, this is impossible. The explanation is that most of it is smuggled into Spain: between 2010 and last year, seizures at the Spanish border increased by 213 per cent.
Gibraltar's tax regime also deserves close scrutiny. Last year it ranked among the 10 richest territories in the world (€47,847, or $69,250, per capita income). This tax haven with opaque fiscal privileges has attracted almost as many registered companies as there are Gibraltarians. Most of these firms belong to non-residents whose basic intent is to avoid taxation in their home countries. Such a system distorts conditions of competition within the EU internal market, and harms primarily public and private Spanish interests.
At the same time, at least a quarter of Gibraltarians actually live in Spain, where they benefit from services without paying any taxes.
If offshore dumping of concrete blocks causes serious environmental damage, the practice of bunkering (ship refuelling) off Gibraltar creates an even more dangerous risk of accidental oil spills in the Strait of Gibraltar, one of the world's busiest sea lanes.
For these, but also for other reasons, Spain and Britain are resuming talks, probably also involving the Gibraltarian and Andalusian authorities in areas of their competence because these issues concern local residents.
Britain should not take advantage of the situation by endorsing through inaction the unilateral moves made by the Gibraltarian authorities. The state of events should be jointly evaluated and the status quo ante re-established to regain governmental control over the situation.
It may not be reasonable to expect Spain and Britain to solve the sovereignty dispute in a fortnight, but the parties to the Utrecht Treaty certainly have the obligation to keep the situation under control by co-operating in good faith and by ensuring proper abidance by EU law.
Enrique Viguera is the Spanish ambassador to Australia.