The Government condemned the Spanish authorities for taking retaliatory action over a fishing dispute by banning cars with Gibraltar licence plates from Spanish roads and preventing any flights to the territory from crossing Spanish air space, as MPs warned ministers against any attempt to bargain away the Rock's sovereignty. The latest row over Gibraltar, which has been rumbling for years, was sparked after the Spanish Foreign Minister, Abel Matutes, repudiated a local settlement to end a dispute on fishing rights and retaliated by enforcing checks on traffic across the border.
MPs called on the Government to send a fisheries protection vessel to the colony. Andrew Mackinlay, the Labour MP for Thurrock, said the Government had been `far too soft for years' with the Spanish over Gibraltar.
Labour's Lindsay Hoyle said that two of his Chorley constituents were trapped for 13 hours on the Spanish side of the border, neither able to go into Spain nor back into Gibraltar.
He said: "Hasn't the time come for a protection vessel to go down there?"
To Conservative cheers, Mr Hoyle added: "Let's take the kid gloves off."
Joyce Quin, the Foreign Office minister, who had to face the anger of MPs, confirmed that a Spanish plan for joint sovereignty of the Rock is to be discussed by Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary as part of the so- called Brussels framework,.
But, Ms Quin said, protests would be made by Britain to Jacques Santer, the EU President, to intervene.
The Prime Minister's official spokesman later denied that sovereignty over Gibraltar was on the table. "There is no change whatever in our position on Gibraltar. The Spanish appear to be saying that there is some discussion that led them to believe there was some change in our position over the fishing dispute and that is not the case." The spokesman said Tony Blair's personal relationship with Jose Maria Aznar, the Spanish Prime Minister and the leader of the Socialists, Labour's sister party in Spain was warm, "but there is no denying there is a problem".
Officials in Gibraltar said the Spanish retaliatory action was worse than under General Franco. Peter Caruana, the chief minister, said: "The people of Gibraltar are determined to stand firm against these unEuropean undemocratic attempts to force Gibraltar to accept Spanish sovereignty.
"The EU Commission cannot remain impassive in the face of such serious and blatant disregard of Spain's EU obligations and our EU rights."