Spain struck back yesterday after the European Affairs minister, Denis MacShane, said joint sovereignty talks on Gibraltar had collapsed. The Spanish minister for Europe, Ramon de Miguel, criticised the remarks of his British counterpart, in two Spanish newspapers on Sunday, as "astonishing" and "inopportune".
He said: "We know there are difficulties, but at no time have the spirit of negotiation and the desire to find a solution to the problem of Gibraltar been in doubt. This shows a break, a desire to break off dialogue that's very strange."
Mr MacShane said the chances of striking a deal that was not acceptable to Gibraltarians were "simply zero", adding: "We no longer live in the 18th or 19th centuries when diplomats could sign treaties and people had to obey them." The Rock, he said, was "historically related to Britain ... as Ceuta and Melilla are to Spain."
The comparison with Madrid's Moroccan enclaves touched a particularly sensitive Spanish nerve. "To make any comparison between Ceuta, Melilla and Gibraltar is totally absurd," Mr Miguel said. "I am surprised a European colleague ... doesn't know the difference. Ceuta and Melilla are an integral part of Spain, Spanish territory, and therefore part of the EU, while Gibraltar is a colony in the process of decolonisation."
The status of Gibraltar had to be resolved "as a decolonisation process in the framework of the UN and the EU, because it doesn't seem possible for a territory like this to sustain its present situation", Mr Miguel added.
The Europe spokesman for the opposition Socialists, Manuel Marin, urged the Spanish government to make a firm response to what he called Mr MacShane's "offensive and dangerous" remarks. Mr Marin was worried that Spain's delicate relations with Morocco might be inflamed: Rabat has a long-standing claim on Ceuta and Melilla.
Mr MacShane's statements are a rebuff to a letter written by the Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar, to Tony Blair on 19 May, asking for co-sovereignty talks to resume. Last week, Ana Palacio, the Spanish Foreign Minister, said she hoped to see "the Spanish flag flying over the Rock" within a year.
Mr Marin considered Mr MacShane's comments a wounding breach of protocol. "It is not normal for a response to Mr Aznar to take the form of declarations by a secretary of state," he said. "You can't make a fool of the whole country."
But Mr Miguel, who met Mr MacShane on Friday without Gibraltar being mentioned, said he did not want to engage in polemic.
Foreign ministry sources said Mr MacShane's remarks did not reflect the views of Mr Blair or the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw. But others believed Mr MacShane, like Peter Hain before him, was acting as an advance guard, testing reaction to London's new line.
Gibraltarians overwhelmingly rejected a sovereignty deal in a referendum last November that dashed hopes for a settlement. Gibraltar's government was said to be satisfied with Mr MacShane's stance, but some Gibraltarians feared reprisals from Spain.