Gibraltar is not changing hands, insists minister

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The people of Gibraltar were last night given voting rights in European parliamentary elections in what was being seen as an effort by the British Government to smooth the row over sovereignty of the Rock.

The Europe Minister, Peter Hain, told a panel of MPs that – for the first time – the colony's electorate would be able to take part in the five-yearly elections.

He revealed the change during intense questioning from the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, which was asking about the talks with Spain on the future of the territory. Mr Hain compared the situation in Gibraltar to that of Northern Ireland and said there was "nothing to fear from talking."

He promised MPs that talks with Spain about Gibraltar did not involve the handing over of sovereignty but he said that increased self government was up for discussion. "I am being absolutely straight and frank that we will not agree to hand over Gibraltar in any shape or form," said Mr Hain. "That is not on the agenda."

The European Union had put pressure on both Britain and Spain to come to the table to talk about Gibraltar's future, he said, adding that the "prize" was for sovereignty to no longer hamper talks about the modernisation of services on the Rock.

Mr Hain poured scorn on suggestions that Gibraltar should be made a full part of the United Kingdom and said that the idea was unrealistic in a modern Europe. But he said that a full constitutional settlement would be in Gibraltar's interest and that its inhabitants had already benefited over talks with Spain over access to healthcare and utilities.

"This is a dispute that has gone on for far too long," Mr Hain added.

Appearing before the committee earlier, Gibraltar's Chief Minister, Peter Caruana, said that he would prefer to see "an empty chair" at talks that could involve the sovereignty of the colony.

Mr Caruana said he rejected the suggestion that he was being obstructive by not attending the talks and said Britain and Spain were trying to bounce him into the process.

"It is not that I will never go to talks. I will not go to talks that are strictly purely bilateral between London and Madrid," he said. "I have no wish to barter our sovereignty, our exclusive British sovereignty."

Mr Caruana, who gave a remarkably robust performance, was accused of "sophistry" by MPs but, in a thinly veiled reference to accusations of press management that have been aimed at the Labour Government, he said "I do not engage in spin."