The HMS Westminster, shown here, is one of several ships en route to Gibraltar for a naval exercise, in the midst of a dispute between the British and Spanish governments. (Source: Reuters)
While fighting over small bits of land have been the domain of east Asian nations in recent years, a new dispute is starting to cause pain in Europe. The land in question is Gibraltar, located on the southern tip of Spain and owned and maintained by the United Kingdom. After a dispute between the two nations escalated in late July, the British have sent out a fleet of warships, including the Royal Navy flagship HMS Bulwark and carrier HMS Illustrious, to the Strait of Gibraltar. The ships are supposedly being used for a naval exercise called Cougar 13, but it is also possible the presence of these ships is intended to intimidate the Spanish government into backing off on its recent squabbles over Gibraltar.
The current dispute in Gibraltar began in late July, when Spanish fishermen discovered the installation of a concrete reef by the British government, preventing them from fishing in those waters. That, combined with the uptick in local maritime police activity from the British, has led the Spanish to tighten border controls between Spain and Gibraltar, leading to delays lasting a few hours, and proposing adding a €50 ($67) fee for each time a person enters or exits the British territory. The Spanish government argues that the checks are intended to cut down on smuggling from Gibraltar, but the British see it as retaliation.
Despite an attempt by British Prime Minister David Cameron and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to ease tensions, misinterpretations have led to further escalation. Now, the Spanish government is looking to bring their dispute to the United Nations, bringing up matters of disputed waters and land. They have an ally in Argentina, who is currently a member of the UN Security Council and is currently hassling the British over the sovereignty of the Falklands Islands, which they lost after attempting to invade them in 1983. The British responded by intending to bring up the matter with the European Union courts.
Both the British and Spanish governments downplayed the presence of the warships, given that the naval exercise was scheduled well before tensions flared up. Still, given the long history of simmering tension between the two nations over Gibraltar, which was handed over to the British exactly 300 years ago this year, and Spain's precarious economic standing following a bailout in 2012 and austerity measures, it is quite possible an incident might happen during these exercises.