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Wednesday, 10 July, 2002, 18:10 GMT 19:10 UK
Reshuffle sparks Gibraltar talks fears
The new foreign minister is shown to her office by her predecessor
Replacing Pique with Palacio may spell a halt to Gibraltar talks


British officials say they expect a pause in the negotiations on Gibraltar following the unexpected replacement of the Spanish Foreign Minister, Josep Pique.

It has been announced that the new Minister, Ana Palacio Vallelersundi, will not go ahead with a planned meeting in Madrid on Friday with the British Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw. A new date has not yet been fixed.

The Spanish move, part of a wider government reshuffle, confirms that the negotiations are almost at a standstill.

British officials are now emphasising that they did not expect an agreement on Friday in any case.

The aim over the past year has been a deal on joint sovereignty over Gibraltar, the Rock at the southern tip of Spain held by Britain for nearly 300 years.

And the sticking-points remain the same:

  • Will Spain agree not to pursue its claim for total sovereignty for the foreseeable future?
  • Will the final say rest with the 30,000 people of Gibraltar in a referendum?
  • Will Britain retain outright control over the Rock's military base?

Difficulties

It was already clear these were major difficulties.

Josep Pique had played a high-profile part in the negotiations.


If they [the talks on Gibraltar] are to be quietly allowed to die, that would be easier under the new foreign minister

The fact that he was moved to another government post only three days before a big negotiating session shows that the Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar, did not expect anything from the meeting.

If the negotiations are to be quietly allowed to die, that would be easier under the new Foreign Minister, Ana Palacio, who has no background in dealing with the Gibraltar issue.

British officials say they have no indication what her attitude will be but it is unlikely that Spain's basic policy will change.

No Spanish government would agree to abandon its claim to Gibraltar: from that point of view, a deal with Britain would be merely a staging-post on the road to outright sovereignty.

The proposed referendum is also difficult for Madrid to swallow.

It sees the dispute as a purely bilateral matter between the two governments and conceding any form of self-determination for the people of Gibraltar would set an unwelcome precedent that might be exploited by the separatist movement in the Basque country of northern Spain.

EU veteran

Leaving Gibraltar aside, Ana Palacio is an interesting figure, thoroughly familiar with the workings of the European Union.

A lawyer by profession (in fact, an honorary member of the English Bar), she has played a key part in European legislation by chairing two committees of the European Parliament: legal affairs, and more recently, citizens' freedoms and rights.

Ana Palacio was criticised by left-wing members a few weeks ago for her role in persuading the parliament to approve greater surveillance of e-mail, mobile phone and internet records.

She was accused of taking the side of EU governments and acting against civil liberties.


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10 Jul 02 | Europe
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