Sir Humphrey thinks there’s rather less than meets the eye in the media’s coverage of the Spanish government’s recent series of escalations over Gibraltar:
Its August, the sun is shining, the politicians are on holiday and the media are desperately searching around for some kind of story to fill the news. Suddenly, the perfect story has emerged — those dreadful Spanish are doing all manner of dubious things to threaten Gibraltar and simultaneously the Falkland Islands. Is there reason for panic, or is it a case of just summer bluster in order to distract attention from other problems? The UK has always had a challenging relationship with the Spanish over Gibraltar — no matter how much the UK wishes to move the relationship forward (and in many areas it remains an extremely strong and positive relationship), this feels as if it is an issue which cannot easily be resolved.
The current situation owes much to the Spanish ratcheting up tensions after claims that Gibraltar was laying concrete blocks into local waters, in turn threatening traditional fishing grounds. It is hard to work out whether this is a genuine grievance, or merely a convenient pretext in order to gain some traction on putting pressure on the territory. Following a previous weekend where long traffic jams occurred with checks on all cars transiting the border, the Spanish are now reportedly considering imposing an entrance / exit tax of 50 Euros on anyone transiting their side of the border. While such taxes may be deeply unpleasant, they are perhaps not necessarily new (many countries impose similar entrance taxes around the world). The question is to what extent would this damage the local economy? It is worth considering that many Gibraltarians work in southern Spain, so any tax would probably make it difficult to get to work and damage the livelihood of many small businesses – perhaps appealing in a nation where youth unemployment is ever higher, but in the interim it could easily cause more long term economic damage to both the Spanish and Gibraltarian economies.
So what is the tie-in to the Falkland Islands? A media report on Spain selling Mirage fighter jets to Argentina:
It is not clear whether this is actually news, or whether it’s the case that the Tabloid press have been looking on Wikipedia and turned what is a one line entry on future Spanish Mirage jet prospects into an article designed to raise tensions. In reality this site has long made the point that the Argentine Armed Forces are in a parlous state, and that they are desperately short of spares, training and operational experience.
They’ve also taken various fleets of aircraft out of service in recent years, so its entirely reasonable to expect some form of replacement at some point. In the case of the Mirage jets, they entered service in 1975 and are extremely old and not necessarily front line fast jet material any longer. Acquisition of a small number of 1970s vintage jets which have been worked hard for nearly 40 years is not really going to change the balance of power in the South Atlantic. Indeed, its worth noting that right now (if you believe Wikipedia) the entire Argentine Mirage fleet is grounded anyway due to spares and safety issues. At best this acquisition may try and restore some limited capability. So, its fair to say that the Falkland Islands are hardly at risk of collapse — if the acquisition of a small number of ancient fighter aircraft materially changes the balance of power, then something has gone very badly wrong in UK defence planning circles.