The EU Rights Clinic has received over 80 detailed complaints from citizens of the European Union about excessive delays at the Spanish-Gibraltar border crossing that left them waiting between 3 to 6 hours to cross the border in either direction on and around the week-end of 28/29 July 2013.
The complainants include residents from Gibraltar, commuting Spanish workers and tourists. EU citizens who crossed the border were subjected to excessive controls targeting most vehicles queuing at the border. The measures required drivers to open the boot of their vehicle for the border guards to perform a perfunctory check.
The Citizens Advice Bureau in Gibraltar reported that their “clients were left waiting in a queue to cross the border into Spain for over 6 hours in the scorching heat. One client’s baby became sick because of the heat and started to vomit and [the parents] had to call an ambulance since there was no way they could get out of the queue. Another client was late to catch a flight for their summer holiday.” A woman who could not get home until well past midnight commented “from what I saw, the [Spanish] civil guards weren’t even checking vehicles properly to justify their actions as searches for contraband or other illegal baggage.”
Spain claims it is carrying out legitimate measures to combat smuggling and fiscal evasion. While the EU rules on free movement of goods do not apply to Gibraltar, the EU rules on the free movement of persons and EU citizenship do remain applicable.
Anthony Valcke, solicitor at the EU Rights Clinic, explains:
‘Free movement of persons can only be restricted on public interest grounds. Combating smuggling and fiscal evasion are legitimate aims but they have to be carried out in a manner which is necessary and proportional. The measures here do not appear proportionate – the aim is not achieved if checks are being carried out half-heartedly – and nor do the measures appear necessary – because there could be alternative and more efficient ways of carrying out such checks. Furthermore, the EU Court of Justice has previously ruled that checks on persons who move freely around the EU should not be carried out on a systematic basis.’
It is not just the free movement of persons which is being affected. This issue goes to the very heart of Citizenship of the EU. The Spanish measures appear to be explicitly intended to interfere with the enjoyment by EU citizens of the substance of the rights conferred by the Treaties. Indeed the Spanish government has even announced it would consider imposing a toll fee of €50 (£43) on each person crossing the border. It is hoped that the European Commission would take immediate action before the EU Court of Justice in the event such a fee was imposed.
Evidence of delays at the border is now being documented on a daily basis. Peaks in the delays seem to coincide with other political events affecting Gibraltar’s and the UK’s relations with Spain. While the Spanish territorial claims may be legitimate concerns, this is a matter to be addressed in the appropriate forum. In no way do such claims justify the treatment suffered by EU citizens who wish to exercise their EU rights and move freely between EU member states. This is a particularly lamentable situation since it was at the initiative of the Spanish government that European citizenship was included in the Treaty of Maastricht.
For this reason, the EU Rights Clinic proposes to review the complaints it has received and to consider whether it would be appropriate for a request to be made to the European Commission for it to launch an immediate investigation into the matter. Citizens of the EU are entitled to expect the Commission will take all appropriate measures to safeguard their citizens’ rights.