Anglo-Spanish talks over Gibraltar were spectacularly relaunched yesterday in a co-operative spirit unprecedented for many years: Spain downgraded its sovereignty claim to a "wish", and agreed for the first time for Gibraltarians to be fully involved in determining the future of the Rock.
Speaking after a meeting between the Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and his Spanish counterpart Miguel Angel Moratinos in Madrid yesterday, the two ministers fell over themselves in their expressions of mutual regard and their desire to make progress on the centuries-long dispute, in partnership with the Gibraltarians.
They promised "a new forum for dialogue with an open agenda in which Gibraltar would have its own voice. The modalities for this dialogue will agreed by all the parties." The process remains, however, "in the future tense" as Mr Straw put it, and no dates were given.
Mr Moratinos said: "We want to give the Gibraltarian people and the authorities of Gibraltar the opportunity to participate. We need Gibraltar involved: that's the only way forward. Today we've made an important step in the long process to reconcile Spain's wish to recover sovereignty and the interests of the Gibraltarians."
Points to be discussed in the new forum include an agreement for joint use of Gibraltar airport; to allow planes flying to Gibraltar to divert to Spanish airports if necessary; to resolve the problem of pensions for Spaniards who had worked on the Rock. Spain also agreed to allow cruise liners visiting Gibraltar to dock at any Spanish port, settling an ugly row that soured relations in the spring.
Mr Straw said he had spoken to Gibraltar's Chief Minister Peter Caruana after yesterday's meeting, and said Mr Caruana was "entirely content" with the outcome. It is significant, because Gibraltar has long complained that Britain and Spain cooked up bilateral deals behind its back, and resists any threat to its British status.
An Anglo-Spanish proposal for "joint sovereignty" was dropped after Gibraltarians voted overwhelmingly against the plan in a referendum nearly two years ago. Progress jammed until last May when Mr Moratinos visited Mr Straw in London.
"We will always honour the wishes of Gibraltar as to their future: unless we have their active consent there is no point in having discussions," Mr Straw said yesterday, in recognition of Gibraltar's proven ability to sink anything it didn't like.
But instead of the usual Spanish recriminations that the Rock's colonial status was an obstructive anachronism in modern Europe, Mr Moratinos insisted that the feelings of the people of Gibraltar were as important as the land itself. Spain's socialist government wants to woo them. "With the new attitude we'll find support and agreement among Gibraltarians," he said.
Spain's friendlier approach is reflected in joint developments between Gibraltar and the neighbouring region in Andalucia, that Mr Straw welcomed as part of the "practical work" the three parties pledged to undertake. Sovereignty - a Spanish "objective", according to the ministers - floated vaguely in the background, sidelined in Spain's new desire to please.
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