Gibraltar accuses UK of preparing 'sell-out' to Spain

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Britain sparked a furious reaction from the government of Gibraltar yesterday after calling for its people to accept "fresh thinking" during negotiations with Spain over the Rock's future.

As Tony Blair and his Spanish counterpart, Jose Maria Aznar, discussed ideas to resolve Britain's 300-year dispute with Spain over Gibraltar, the government in the British dependent territory accused London of preparing to "sell out" its people by handing sovereignty to Madrid.

It seized on comments by the Foreign Office minister Peter Hain, who sought to reassure the Rock's people by saying they would have a vote on the colony's future and would not be forced to give up their British citizenship.

The Gibraltar government attacked Mr Hain's comments as "extraordinary", adding: "The issue is not one of loss of citizenship but of sovereignty of the land and political rights of the people, which are indivisible from each other."

At Downing Street last night, Mr Blair and Mr Aznar promised to find a solution acceptable to all sides to what they called the "sensitive issue". Their talks continued at Chequers, where Mr Aznar stayed last night.

Mr Blair said: "The traditional positions of Britain and Spain have not changed ... The big difference in context is that the process is being conducted by two countries that are genuine allies and partners today."

Foreign ministers from Britain and Spain will hold talks on the Rock's future on 20 November. The governments have set a deadline of December next year for resolving their long-standing differences.

Mr Hain said: "It is very important that Madrid moves on and London moves on and the people of Gibraltar move on as well." He said that Gibraltarians had to recognise that times had changed and that a new relationship with Spain would be to their great advantage.

He said the talks promised "an enormous prize and opportunity" for Gibraltar, which could become the main financial centre for the entire region.

Mr Hain called for "fresh thinking" from Gibraltar and said he was "very puzzled" that its government might boycott the talks. He insisted: "There isn't any way that Britain is simply going to hand Gibraltar over to Spain, I give you that categorical assurance now. That is not a serious proposition."

But Peter Caruana, Gibraltar's Chief Minister, said the idea that the sovereignty of Gibraltar could be handed around between Britain and Spain was "democratically obscene". He said: "Mr Hain expects the Gibraltar government to go along to talks on the basis that we will be consulted, but that he and Spain will be free to agree whatever they choose over our heads. We don't see why we should be expected to give up our British sovereignty to buy off the Spanish blackmails and the Spanish vetoes of European business, which is really what is behind all of this."

In a statement, the Gibraltar government said Mr Hain's approach seemed to be "that Gibraltar had better accept a sovereignty deal because the alternative is a pain".

It said there was "no evidence" to indicate "a genuine change" in approach by Spain. "The only change by Madrid that would enable the problem to be resolved is Spain's acceptance of our right to decide our own future and that she cannot have any share of the sovereignty of any part of Gibraltar contrary to the wishes of the people of Gibraltar."