Gibraltarians vow to defeat joint-rule plan

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The Independent Online

Gibraltarians in their 300-year-old fortress colony are preparing possibly their last act of defiance – resisting British and Spanish plans for joint control of the Rock.

"We are under siege, and we will defeat this siege just as we have defeated others down the centuries," Gibraltar's opposition Labour leader, Joe Bossano, said yesterday. "They can send fireships, as they did in 1704, and we will see them off again – as we always have."

Mr Bossano spent the weekend mobilising for protests tomorrow against an expected announcement from London that Britain and Spain will agree to share sovereignty over Gibraltar. He made home visits to his supporters in the council estates and yesterday addressed public rallies to whip up support.

"We will march with our flags to the frontier and say: Spain ends there, Gibraltar begins here. We won't move an inch," Mr Bossano said.

Tomorrow the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, meets his Spanish counterpart, Josep Pique, in possibly the most decisive meeting in the latest round of talks over Gibraltar's future. The dispute over the British colony claimed by Spain has long soured relations between the two otherwise friendly countries.

But now, for the first time, Anglo-Spanish friendship and wider European harmony outweigh Britain's historic commitment to the Rock. Britain proposes to share sovereignty indefinitely with Spain, an offer acceptable to Madrid if it can extract a face-saving formula that preserves its ancient claim, albeit theoretically.

A chilly realpolitik is sweeping through Britain's dealings with Gibraltar. The Chief Minister, Peter Caruana, was invited to the Anglo-Spanish talks but was not granted an equal voice with Spain, so did not attend. When the bilateral deal is struck, Gibraltar will be offered generous incentives to accept it. But if it does not, Britain's traditional lobbying for Gibraltarian interests in Europe will dry up, diplomatic sources warn.

For the first time, Mr Blair's government is shrugging off accusations that it is selling out the Gibraltarians. The minister for Europe, Peter Hain, told Parliament last week: "Negotiation is not selling out. The only sell-out is from those people who try to fool the public that there are serious alternatives. There are not." Without mentioning joint sovereignty, Mr Hain predicted big changes, condemning "failed old shibboleths".

Many Gibraltarians have got the message. "Spain and Britain will agree, and declare the dispute settled. And we can then only bargain on the fringes, over full stops and commas," said Mr Bossano. "They just want to brush us aside. But we won't be airbrushed away."