Hurd disguises the deadlock in Gibraltar talks

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The Independent Online
EVEN BY the standards of diplomatic doublespeak, it was a classic. Britain and Spain, the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, insisted, plucking each word slowly but convincingly from decades of experience, 'have identified areas for further work and charted a possible way forward'.

In the unlikely event that his words ever become historically significant, let it be noted that Mr Hurd was addressing a press conference in Madrid yesterday after talks with Spain over the disputed future of Gibraltar. He also talked briefly with the Prime Minister, Felipe Gonzalez, and King Juan Carlos.

As Mr Hurd's host, the Spanish Foreign Minister, Javier Solana, was spared the need to put a brave face on what was clearly little more than continuing deadlock. He indicated he had heard nothing to alter the words he had uttered to Spanish journalists before meeting Mr Hurd. 'I didn't expect much from this meeting,' he had said. 'Spain continues to insist on its right to sovereignty over Gibraltar. We will continue with patience and tenacity because we know we are in the right.'

For those who think the Gibraltarians themselves should have some say in their future, do not despair. Neither the crown colony's Chief Minister, Joe Bossano, nor anyone from his government had been invited along to express their opinion. It was left to a young journalist from the Gibraltar Chronicle to ask what the two powers-that-be were doing to meet the colony's expressed desire for self-determination. 'One of the clear points,' Mr Hurd responded, 'is an obligation (on the part of Britain) to reflect the wishes of the people of Gibraltar.'

As for Mr Solana: 'the theme of self-determination lies outside the framework of these discussions.' Neither minister ventured to explain why, as Mr Bossano and most Gibraltarians demand, the people of Gibraltar are not represented at talks that will shape their future.

Perhaps the ministers' reticence was understandable. The bilateral talks yesterday, and over the best part of a decade, are aimed at resolving one of diplomacy's great Catch 22s.

In the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, Spain's King Felipe V was forced to cede Gibraltar to Britain. But the Spanish monarch must have had a forward-looking adviser. If Britain ever gave up its colonial rights, the treaty said, the Rock would return to Spain. 'Get out of that,' the King's adviser must have thought to himself.

Among the most concrete points of continuing deadlock in the Anglo-Spanish talks is the use of Gibraltar airport. Pointed in the appropriate direction by a Spanish journalist yesterday, Mr Solana said Spain would prefer joint use of the airport but that it would consider building its own airport a few kilometres away if necessary.

Reflecting a common sentiment here, Mr Hurd was asked by another local journalist if he would equate the Gibraltar situation with the Falklands. With a wry smile, the Foreign Secretary did not see fit to assure him that the Royal Navy was not bound for the Straits even as he spoke. 'The two subjects have a different ancestry,' he replied.