UK and Spain to reopen Gibraltar talks

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN and Spain will resume ministerial talks on the disputed future status of Gibraltar on 1 March after a break of two years, according to government sources here. They said Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, and his Spanish counterpart, Javier Solana, would meet at a venue yet to be decided.

The two countries last discussed Gibraltar at senior level in London almost exactly two years ago, when the late Francisco Fernandez Ordonez was Spain's foreign minister. Further talks were postponed a year ago as Britain prepared for general elections and Mr Fernandez Ordonez fell ill. They were put off again last November as Britain, which held the EC presidency, sought to avoid further potential conflict with Spain at the impending Edinburgh summit.

The stakes on the table when Mr Hurd meets Mr Solana next month will hardly be piled as high as during the last Ango-Spanish confrontation, over European Community budget contributions, in Edinburgh. Nevertheless, Mr Hurd's diplomatic prowess will be taxed to the full by the knotty issue at a time when Gibraltar has its eyes fixed on a new prize - self-determination as 'the 13th member of the EC'.

Gibraltar's Chief Minister, Joe Bossano, has warned of a 'major confrontation' with London if the colony is not allowed to choose its own course. Elected to a second term last year with a large majority, Mr Bossano has the firm backing of the Rock's business leaders, who see Britain as the colonial past and the EC as its natural future. With the traditional British presence now all but gone, including all ground forces, little more than the post of governor remains, in tangible terms, to bind colony with Crown. The way Mr Bossano sees it, the much-vaunted EC principle of 'subsidiarity' is something that should also extend to Gibraltar.

The Chief Minister's 'go-it-alone' policy will not make the forthcoming Anglo-Spanish talks any easier, particularly for Mr Hurd. Britain's position is that Gibraltar is part of the EC only because it is part of Britain and that any idea of Gibraltar becoming a '13th EC member' would be illegal from every point of view. Indeed, the very terms of the agreement under which Britain took control of the Rock 'in perpetuity' according to the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, clearly specify that if Britain ever relinquished its colonal rights, Gibraltar would return to Spain.

While that may seem to provide an opening for Spain to fulfil its long- standing claim to the territory, it is also very much a Catch-22 for Madrid. Were Britain ever to relinquish control in order to grant the colony independence, it seems highly unlikely that the world's present-day powers-that-be would put a 1713 treaty before a small nation's claim to independence and self-determination.

Hence Spain's current stance of rejecting any move towards self-rule in Gibraltar. Formally, Spain still claims outright sovereignty over what Spaniards call el Penon, the Rock. In practice, the Prime Minister, Felipe Gonzalez, is said to have once proposed a compromise under which Britain and Spain would have joint sovereignty, with the Queen and Spain's King Juan Carlos as joint heads of state.

This was an idea rejected out of hand by the government of Gibraltar itself. But with the problem rapidly becoming a matter of common ground between London and Madrid, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that such a compromise may eventually be needed to end the impasse.