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Monday, 4 February, 2002, 14:32 GMT
Divided by the Rock
Gibraltar
Storm clouds are gathering over Gibraltar
Paul Reynolds

Britain and Spain are engaged in a delicate diplomatic dance that could lead to an agreement between them on the future of Gibraltar.

It has taken them nearly 300 years to reach this point - but any agreement will almost certainly lead to a new row with the 30,000 people who live on the Rock and it could all go on for a few more years yet.

Gibraltar is not another Hong Kong - there is no lease on Gibraltar.

There is, instead, the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713, which put an end to one of those wars that littered the construction of the British Empire.

That document gives Britain sovereignty but says clearly that if Britain gives it up, Gibraltar must revert to Spanish control.

It therefore excludes the possibility of independence for Gibraltar.

Sharing power?

The Rock cannot be another Malta, for example.

So the new idea is that Britain and Spain should "share" sovereignty.

The signs are that much bitterness lies ahead, certainly much argument

The fact is that Britain now regards Gibraltar as a bit of a problem.

It has affected Britain's relations with Spain, which London would like as a partner for reform in the European Union.

And Spain, too, is tired of the old argument, endlessly repeated, that it must have Gibraltar back, regardless.

It is willing to settle, it seems, for something not everything.

It is therefore in both countries' interests to settle this.

Colonial relics

They intend to make a "joint declaration" by the summer and hope then to entice the Gibraltarians into the talks and eventually hold a referendum, as happened in Northern Ireland.

The British Government says that Gibraltar's "way of life" must be preserved, including its British citizenship and fragments of British life like pints of beer.

Spain would have to normalise relations with the Rock, end delays at the border and stop blocking Gibraltar's integration into the EU system.
Peter Caruana, Gibraltar's chief minister
Peter Caruana is worried about a British "betrayal"

Britain would also do away with colonial relics, including the Governor, who still has powers to block legislation.

The British Government is also wielding a stick.

It argues that there has to be change anyway.

Under international agreement, Gibraltar's favourable tax laws have to be ended in a few years and an agreement, London says, would enable the EU to help with transitional arrangements.

Without an agreement, Gibraltar would be in a weak position.

Obstacle

And it makes a great deal of its income out of its tax laws.

The price of "normality", though, is that Spain has to have its say.

Madrid would then be able to take satisfaction that it had broken the nearly 300-year deadlock.

There is only one obstacle in all this - the people of Gibraltar.

Neither British nor Spanish by origin, they have evolved a way of life in a Mediterranean enclave that would like to go its own way and will not be pushed around.

They have a guarantee from the British Government in 1969 that any agreement will have to be put to a binding referendum.

And so far the people, led by a British trained lawyer, who also has a house in Spain, Chief Minister Peter Caruana, have made clear their opposition.

They say that, in a modern, democratic world, the rights of a people, however few of them there might be, should be accepted.

British 'betrayal'

They do not want any Spanish control, even if shared.

Mr Caruana has refused to join the talks, arguing that he needs a veto.

He is worried about a British "betrayal".

The signs are that much bitterness lies ahead, certainly much argument.

Will it all work out?

The Northern Ireland parallel is perhaps instructive.

It took five years to get from a joint declaration between Britain and Ireland to acceptance of an actual deal in Northern Ireland itself.

With Gibraltar, it might take even longer.

See also:

04 Feb 02 | UK Politics
Gibraltar sovereignty under discussion
15 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Dispute continues on Gibraltar talks
14 Jan 02 | UK Politics
'No deal on Gibraltar'
12 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Officials dismiss Gibraltar 'deal'
28 Nov 01 | UK Politics
'No boycott' on Gibraltar
20 Nov 01 | Europe
Head to Head: Gibraltar's future
20 Nov 01 | Europe
Q&A: Where now for Gibraltar?
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