It is irking see the Conservatives so publicly and comprehensively outmanoeuvred by Labour recently on a variety of issues, most recently related to education and welfare. To witness the same thing now happen in the sphere of foreign policy is yet another worrying sign that the Conservative-led coalition government is coasting at this point, perhaps made complacent by the recent uptick in economic indicators, and taking their eye off the ball.
The Telegraph reports that Gareth Thomas, the Labour shadow minister for Europe, has raised concerns that Britain is not doing enough to forcefully push back against recent Spanish misbehaviour with regard to Gibraltar:
Gibraltar is a territory “under siege” and Spain should be made to account for its actions in relation to The Rock, the shadow minister for Europe has said.
Gareth Thomas, the Labour MP for Harrow West, said that residents of Gibraltar were concerned that Britain was not doing enough to defend them from Spanish harassment. The past 12 months have seen the highest ever number of incursions by Spanish ships into Gibraltar’s waters, with the almost double the incidents from 2012.
“I was struck by the sense that the Gibraltarians have of being under siege,” said Mr Thomas, who visited Gibraltar in November. “Spanish ships are coming into their waters on a regular basis.”
We have seen this before. The leaders of countries that are in the doldrums, facing economic malaise and restive populations (hi, Argentina), suddenly dredging up ancient grievances against Britain. Grievances that were once dead and buried during happier economic times. If you are going to make the case that the absence of the Falkland Islands or Gibraltar is like a gaping hole in your respective nation, I would have slightly more sympathy if we didn’t hear your plaintive appeals only during times of economic recession.
This continual harassment of a British overseas territory is unacceptable, and one cannot help but feel that the diplomatic protest by the UK in response has been far too small. Relying on a corrupt body such as the European Commission to mediate the dispute by visiting Gibraltar was clearly never going to be the answer, and why William Hague thought that this option would be sufficient to resolve the situation is mystifying. Diplomatic pressure is clearly failing in this case, and more stringent unilateral action may be required to bring the Spanish back into line. Bullying behaviour tends only to respond to a show of strength, a clear assertion that the bullying will no longer be tolerated.
Of more concern to me, though, is the fact that William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, has failed to make it sufficiently clear that Britain will not tolerate these childish antics. I had not expected someone so competent and capable to drop the ball or fail to forcefully defend the interests of the UK to the extent that he clearly has. Showing forebearance to Spain on the issue of Gibraltar, particularly given the childish means by which the Spanish government chooses to pursue its non-cause, is no longer cute or charming or patient. It’s weak.
Michael Gove on education, Iain Duncan Smith on welfare and now William Hague on foreign policy, all caught napping and hit from the right by their Labour counterparts. I don’t know whether a weekend retreat is in order at one end of the spectrum, or a wide-ranging cabinet reshuffle at the other, but David Cameron urgently needs to get his cabinet to come out of cruise control.