GIBRALTAR — A British warship docked in Gibraltar on Monday in a pre-planned naval exercise as European leaders worked to calm a row between Britain and Spain over sovereignty and fishing rights.
The Type 23 frigate, equipped with a weapons system including a torpedo launcher, Harpoon anti-ship missiles, Sea Wolf surface-to-air missiles and helicopter, arrived under the gaze of onlookers, some of them waving British flags.
The naval visit to the territory bordering the tip of Spain was planned well before the recent rise in tensions but was seen as symbolic amid the row, which has led EU authorities to weigh in.
It came a day after dozens of Spanish fishing boats sailed to waters around Gibraltar in a protest to demand it remove 70 concrete blocks it has dropped in their fishing grounds.
The Gibraltar government says the concrete reef will regenerate marine life and argues that the Spanish raked for shellfish there illegally.
The Spaniards say they have been cut off from rich fishing grounds, hurting the livelihoods of fishermen in the poor southern region of Andalusia.
It is the latest in a string of diplomatic rows over the self-governing British overseas territory, which measures just 6.8 square kilometers (2.6 square miles) and is home to about 30,000 people.
HMS Westminster, accompanied by two support vessels, sailed in along the boundary of the territorial waters claimed by Britain as it entered port, in a so-called sovereignty patrol that is standard practice for visiting British warships.
“It is a routine deployment but it couldn’t have come at a better time,” said one local, Tony Evans, as he stood watching the ships dock at the nearby naval base.
British and Spanish officials say the naval visits are unrelated to their disagreement over the concrete reef.
Amid the row, Spain has imposed intense customs checks at the land border to Gibraltar, leading to daily hours-long queues of cars.
British Prime Minister David Cameron described the border checks as “politically motivated.”
The Gibraltar police said in a Twitter message that there were no such queues so far in mid-afternoon on Monday.
Spain’s Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia Margallo suggested in a press interview in early August that a 50 euro tax could be levied for travellers entering Spain from Gibraltar.
Imposing taxes or toll fees at EU member-state borders would be “illegal under EU law,” European Commission spokesman Olivier Bailly told a news briefing in Brussels on Monday.
Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy spoke by telephone with Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, officials said. Barroso held a similar conversation with Cameron on Friday.
Speaking to Barroso, Rajoy invited EU experts to come to Spain and Gibraltar to assess the situation, a Spanish government statement said.
Bailly said that visit was planned for September and that the EU may consider whether the reef meets the bloc’s environmental regulations.
Rajoy said the concrete reef “is unacceptable and constitutes a violation of environmental norms,” according to the Spanish statement.
HMS Westminster and the two support vessels are due to stay in Gibraltar for three days before heading east for annual naval exercises.
Spain ceded Gibraltar to Britain in perpetuity in 1713 but has long argued that it should be returned to Spanish sovereignty. London says it will not do so against the wishes of Gibraltarians, who are staunchly pro-British.
A spokesman for Cameron’s office on Monday played down rumors that Britain was considering action to disrupt the tourist industry in Spain — a favorite destination for British holidaymakers.
“Our preference here is to resolve this via political means and through dialogue with the Spanish government,” the spokesman told reporters in London.
“We clearly want to reach a quick resolution which is acceptable and brings an end to these totally disproportionate border checks.”
Gibraltarian First Minister Fabian Picardo told the BBC on Monday that he had been “working on an extremely credible plan to ensure that people who want to fish in these waters can fish in these waters in keeping with Gibraltar law.”