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Anglo-Spanish talks founder on Gibraltar

The dispute over Gibraltar hijacked attempts by Britain and Spain to resume co-operation over Europe yesterday, as so often in the past.

Spain's new, Socialist Foreign Minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos, met his counterpart Jack Straw in London in what was supposed to be a discussion on the EU constitution, and what Mr Moratinos hoped would help smooth the long-running row over the sovereignty of Gibraltar.

But Mr Straw steamed into Mr Moratinos for Spain's refusal to allow cruise ships that visited Gibraltar to dock in Spanish ports. "I spelt out to the minister that we regard the disruption to the cruise ships as unacceptable," Mr Straw said. He told Mr Moratinos, who had hoped for some movement on the sovereignty deadlock, that Britain's position on the Rock was unchanged.

"I explained the position of the British Government in terms everybody fully understands, including the fact that there can be no change in the position of Gibraltar without the consent of the people of Gibraltar as measured by a referendum of the people there."

Britain had tried to foist on an unwilling Gibraltar an eventual joint sovereignty deal between Britain and Spain that would happen at some future date. But the principle was so decisively rejected by Gibraltarians in a referendum that the idea was dropped.

Mr Moratinos pressed Spain's continuing claim to the Rock, ceded to Britain 300 years ago. "The Spanish government retains its firm intention to recover Gibraltar," he said.

But he hinted at a possible settlement of the cruise ship row. Hundreds of passengers aboard the Dutch ship Prinsendam are said to have been stranded because authorities in Tarragona refused them entry for having docked in Gibraltar. Eight cruise ships are similarly affected.

Britain says the ban violates EU law that allows free entry of EU citizens into any EU port. But Spain says Gibraltar is not properly part of the EU.