Following last week’s freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) by the US Navy in the South China Sea, the European Union has publicly expressed its support for “a maritime order based upon the principles of international law, in particular as reflected in the United Nations Convention on the law of the Sea (UNCLOS)”.
This would be all nice and well if Brussels was consistent in defending international law at sea, unfortunately this is far from being the case.
We are not talking about any of the myriad territorial conflicts thousands of miles away from European shores, but rather to the persistent harassment of Gibraltar’s British Territorial Waters by another EU member state.
On an almost daily basis, an EU member state uses limited force to deny the status of those waters as part of the territorial sea of a fellow member state, with the additional purpose of disrupting civilians’ life in a bid to force London negotiate against the democratically-expressed wishes of the Rock’s population.
All of this is in direct contravention of international law. It is, among others, against the principle of peaceful resolution of disputes, against the right to self-determination, and against UNCLOS. Yet, what is Brussels doing about it? Rather little, if anything at all, I am afraid.
Unfortunately, passivity in the face of Gibraltar’s harassment is not seen by Eurocrats as a bar to making their views known on the South China Sea. After all, one of the European Union’s leading characteristics is having an opinion on everything, big or small, nearby or far away.
Nothing escapes the gaze of a European Union unable to come to terms with the traditional British concept of limited government. Nothing, except the campaign of harassment against innocent Gibraltarians.
Yet, surprisingly enough, those same Eurocrats who stay silent while force is used against the people of Gibraltar are now speaking out against Beijing’s resort to force in the South China Sea. How brave! Are they perhaps dreaming of a second Nobel Prize? If they were serious about peace they would start by putting their own house in order.
How credible can the European Union be preaching others to respect international law when this same international law is being violated inside its borders? Hasn’t it occurred to Brussels that Beijing may use the precedent of Gibraltar to its own advantage? Haven’t Eurocrats realised that tolerating the use of non-lethal force at sea contributes to its legitimacy in other corners of the world?
Actually, the notion that one could use state ships to try to impose territorial claims was not born in the South China Sea, rather it started much earlier in Gibraltar’s British Territorial Waters.
The whole episode illustrates some of the reasons why a growing majority of British people wish to leave the European Union. They were told it was a single market, and a force for peace and reconciliation. Instead, they got stifling regulations, micromanagement in a growing range of areas, a constant threat to their traditional liberties under the constitutional rule of Her Majesty the Queen, and complicity in the harassment of Gibraltar.
Those campaigning for the UK to stay in the EU should explain how continued membership will put a stop to the regular violation of British Territorial Waters, the constant defamation of the Rock, and the hour-long queues to punish those who have dared to repeatedly vote against joining “paradise”.
This from the Spanish who have turned its colony opposite the Rock into a de facto major base for the Russian Navy, while Brussels, the same Brussels which enjoys posing as the defender of freedom in Eastern Europe, looks the other way.
We can only conclude that if Brussels is at all serious about international law, the rule of law at sea, and peaceful resolution of disputes, it should forget about the South China Sea for a while and instead focus on putting an end to the use of force against Gibraltar.
If Brussels loves UNCLOS so much, it should start by making sure British Territorial Waters are respected. If it is so keen on the peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law, it should start by demanding that member states refrain from using force in a bid to change existing borders, and instead resort to peaceful methods only, while respecting the internationally-recognized right to self-determination.
Then, and only then, will the EU have the necessary credibility to discuss matters relating to the South China Sea. In the meantime it better keep quiet.
Alex Calvo is a guest professor at Nagoya University (Japan) who specializes in defence and security in the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region. His previous work on the connection between East Asia and the South Atlantic includes “Marines, Missiles, and the Iron Lady: The Military Leg in Japan’s Ocean Strategy” and “The Asia Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, Volume 11, Issue 49, No. 1, 9 December 2013”, available here. Follow him on Twitter: @
The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty