Gibraltar joins South-west England for European poll

It may be nearer to Cadiz than Cornwall, but Gibraltar yesterday found itself classified as part of the south-west of Britain for next year's European elections.

The decision, greeted with a stony silence in Madrid, ends an anomaly under which Gibraltarians had no vote in elections to the European Parliament.

It establishes the equally strange position under which the political fortunes of a rocky outpost in the Mediterranean are linked to those of Cheltenham, Yeovil or Truro.

The Government was forced to act in 1999 when the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Gibraltarians should have the right to participate in elections to the Strasbourg parliament. With a population of only 28,000, about 17,000 of whom can vote, Gibraltar is, though, too small to elect MEPs on its own.

After a two-month consultation, the Electoral Commission recommended Gibraltar's tie-up with the South-west, one of the regions for which MEPs are elected on a proportional representation system. The finding has to be submitted to the Lord Chancellor, who is required to lay it before Parliament. That is likely to be a formality, and the law is expected to be in place before next June's European elections.

In a statement, the Electoral Commission said that its inquiry concluded that "as well as historical and maritime links, many respondents felt that MEPs representing the South-west's diverse communities and interests would be best placed to take on board the distinct concerns of Gibraltar".

Graham Watson, the European Liberal Democrat leader and a South-west MEP, said the decision "corrects the historic injustice which denied the citizens of Gibraltar the right to vote in the European elections despite being EU citizens who have to apply EU law".

Glyn Ford, a Labour MEP for the South-west, also welcomed the decision and argued that there were connections between Gibraltar and his region. Not only is Cornwall a "peripheral" region, like Gibraltar, but "a lot of people in the South-west have members of their families serving in the armed forces in Gibraltar", he said.

Others saw the decision as a snub to the nation's capital. The alternative suggestion was for Gibraltar to be classified as part of London.