The Chief Minister of Gibraltar, Peter Caruana, predicted yesterday that his compatriots would "reject massively" the principle of shared sovereignty in today's referendum on the Rock's future.
The vote – dismissed as "eccentric" by Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary – is the Gibraltarians' attempt to pre-empt efforts to force upon them a co-sovereignty deal struck without their consent. Britain and Spain were close to agreement on shared rule of the British colony when talks collapsed in the summer amid outrage in Gibraltar.
"This referendum is a direct response to Jack Straw's unilateral statement in the House of Commons in July that the British Government is willing to share sovereignty of Gibraltar with Spain," Mr Caruana said. "It is not about preventing discussion or discouraging them: they already know our feelings."
Britain and Spain say they will not be bound by today's vote, the outcome of which is hardly in doubt. Spain's Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar, dismissed the exercise as "irrelevant and illegal", which angered Mr Caruana.
"It is not against the law. It will be a democratic measuring of opinion that no one will be able to rubbish," Mr Caruana insisted yesterday.
"London will know our opinion. If they think that's irrelevant, that is a matter for their democratic conscience."
Gibraltar's 20,500 voters will be asked to answer yes or no to the question: "Do you approve of the principle that Britain and Spain should share sovereignty over Gibraltar?" Loudspeaker vans circled yesterday urging people (in Spanish) to vote, while Union Flags and scarlet-and-white bunting fluttered.
London and Madrid are committed to resuming talks over the future of the Rock. They remain bogged down over three sticking points:
* The status of the naval base, which Britain wants to keep, against Spain's wish that it become jointly administered under Nato auspices;
* How or whether Gibraltar should be consulted and in effect have a veto over any Anglo-Spanish deal;
* The duration of the deal, whether it should be "permanent" or "indefinite" and whether Spain must renounce its historic claim to the Rock.
Spain fears that if the Gibraltarians are asked to accept a deal, they might insist on asserting their right to self-determination, a principle that Mr Caruana said yesterday was being violated by the two powers. Mr Aznar fears any whiff of self-determination would set a dangerous precedent for the independence-minded Basque country.
All parties tacitly recognise that the log-jam, perpetuating an anachronistic dispute that blocks wider EU harmonisation, will be cleared only through changes in tone, by persuasion rather than force.
The last time Gibraltar held a referendum, in 1967, only 44 voted to end British sovereignty, while 12,138 voted to keep links with Britain. Faced with such a gesture of loyalty, Britain promised never to change Gibraltar's constitutional status without its inhabitants' consent, a promise Tony Blair repeated days ago.
The dictator Franco responded in 1968 by closing the border, creating anti-Spanish resentment that has scarcely diminished during 25 years of Spanish democracy. Officials in Madrid say they must woo Gibraltarians, promise generous amounts of self-rule and convince them of the advantages of being part of Spain.
The "yes" campaign has been muted, but at least one Gibraltarian says he will vote for shared rule. Manuel Sanchez, 51, a plumber for a British company, told the Gibraltarian news magazine Panorama: "Spain is transformed socially and economically, and we cannot continue ignoring it or pretending that we can't see it."
Mr Caruana, however, hopes today's "yes" vote will be even smaller than 35 years ago.
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