EU warns Spain Gibraltar border tax ‘illegal’

The European Commission said on Monday that imposing taxes or toll fees at EU member-state borders would be "illegal", as a diplomatic tug-of-war between Britain and Spain over Gibraltar escalated.

EU warns Spain Gibraltar border tax 'illegal'
Spain's Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia Margallo had suggested that a €50 tax would be levied for travellers entering Spain from Gibraltar. Photo: Marcos Moreno/AFP

"We can confirm that any tax (or) fees imposed at the border of a member state will be illegal under EU law," Commission spokesman Olivier Bailly told a news briefing in Brussels.

Spain's Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia Margallo had suggested in a media interview at the start of August that a €50 tax would be levied for travellers entering Spain from Gibraltar.

The idea provoked outrage amid a growing row around the tiny British outpost at the tip of Spain.

Bailly was answering a "theoretical" question from a journalist, on the day British warship HMS Westminster docked in Gibraltar in a naval exercise coinciding with escalating tensions over sovereignty and fishing rights.

The Commission's reminder of EU law came a day after dozens of Spanish fishing boats sailed to waters around Gibraltar to demand it remove 70 concrete blocks it has dropped in their fishing grounds.

Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso was to speak by telephone with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy on Monday, Bailly also said, after the EU leader held a similar conversation with British Prime Minister David Cameron on Friday.

The purpose of the call was threefold, he said: to "listen to what these two leaders have to say"; "to reassure that the Commission will act as necessary to ensure EU law is fully respected by both countries"; and to bang heads together to ensure a "proper dialogue" between the two capitals so as to "find an adequate solution."

The self-governing British overseas territory of Gibraltar measures just 6.8 square kilometres (2.6 square miles). It is home to about 30,000 people.

Spain has imposed intense customs checks at the land border, which British Prime Minister David Cameron has described as "politically motivated".

A Commission inspection team is to travel to the border in September to verify that these border checks are legal.

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Gibraltar holds referendum on its draconian abortion laws

Gibraltar heads to the polls on Thursday to vote on plans to ease abortion laws which currently carry possible life sentences for offenders, in a referendum delayed for over a year by the coronavirus pandemic.

Gibraltar holds referendum on its draconian abortion laws
A woman wears a t-shirt reading " Gibraltar for Yes!" outside a polling station in Gibraltar, on June 24, 2021. Photo: Jorge Guerrero/AFP

The issue has exposed sharply opposing views within this tiny, normally closely-knit British enclave at the southernmost tip of Spain, which is home to some 32,000 people.

The referendum was initially slated for March 19 2020 but a week ahead of the vote it was postponed as virus cases began spiralling at the start of the pandemic.Except in cases where it would save the mother’s life, abortion is currently banned in Gibraltar on pain of life imprisonment, although such a penalty has not been applied in modern times.

The government is proposing changes to the law to allow abortion where a woman’s mental or physical health is at risk — such as in cases of rape or incest — or when foetuses have fatal physical defects.

Although the changes have already been approved by Gibraltar’s parliament, the referendum will decide whether or not that amended law be brought into force.

Under the changes, a woman would be able to undergo an abortion up to 12 weeks into her pregnancy if her mental or physical health is deemed at risk, or beyond if such damage would be grave and permanent.

There would be no time limit on cases involving fatal foetal anomaly.

Until now, women wanting to have an abortion have had to travel to Spain or to Britain to undergo the procedure.

Chief Minister of Gibraltar Fabian Picardo and his wife Justine Olivero leave a polling station after casting their ballots. Photo: JORGE GUERRERO/AFP

– ‘In Gibraltar’s best interests’ –

Ahead of the vote, both sides have been campaigning hard, with Chief Minister Fabian Picardo and two other party leaders releasing a video urging people to vote “Yes” to the proposed amendment to the crimes act that will regulate abortions in Gibraltar.

“My personal, professional & political opinion on the abortion referendum: it is in #Gibraltar’s best interests to #VoteYes on Thursday 24th June,” Picardo tweeted.

“No” campaigners have also been rallying support with hundreds of people dressed in pink and purple joining a pro-life “Save Babies, vote no” march through the city centre last week, chanting “We vote no!”

On the ballot, voters will be asked: “Should the Crimes (Amendment) Act 2019, that defines the circumstances which would allow abortion in Gibraltar, come into force?”

If the changes are approved, the law is expected to take effect fairly quickly although officials have not yet laid out a timeline.

The proposed changes came after Britain’s Supreme Court ruled in June 2018 that Northern Ireland’s abortion laws, which at the time were almost identical to Gibraltar’s, were incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

“It is therefore clear that if the equivalent law on abortion in Northern Ireland was in breach of the Convention, our identical, archaic law is too,” wrote Picardo in an op-ed in Wednesday’s Gibraltar Chronicle.

“It is our duty to vote to stop this ongoing breach.”

Picardo has said he believed the changes were long overdue and that the plans would be approved “by a very large majority”.