Rifkind soothes Gibraltar passports fear

The Spanish government yesterday quashed fears recently swirling around the Rock that Gibraltar passport holders might be prevented from from entering Spain.

Suggestions that Spain might cease to recognise British passports issued in Gibraltar prompted howls of protest in the colony ahead of talks in Madrid yesterday between the Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind and his Spanish counterpart Abel Matutes. The outcry forced the matter to the top of the ministers' agenda.

After yesterday's meeting, the latest in regular bilateral talks on Gibraltar, Mr Matutes stressed that Spain did not and would not question Gibraltarians' right to move freely between Gibraltar, Spain and elsewhere in the European Union. "Spain recognises the right of Gibraltarians to circulate freely in the EU and will act as it has always done to respect this right," he said. He added that British and Spanish civil servants were to resolve jointly some technical problems.

Mr Rifkind said he welcomed Mr Matutes' clarification and hoped this would "remove the anxiety of the last few weeks". He said the suggestions concerning possible action against Gibraltar-issued passports had come not from the minister but from Spanish officials.

Asked whether he now expected these suggestions to subside, Mr Rifkind said: "It would not be possible to reconcile Mr Matutes' statement with the rumours of recent days." He added that the technical problems related to passports of Gibraltarians who were British subjects because of their residence in a dependent territory, but without right of abode in the United Kingdom. "Only a small proportion of Gibraltarians use these passports. Most use ordinary British passports with Gibraltar stamped on them that give them right of movement in the EU," he said.

Referring to Spain's centuries long claim to the Rock, he said the sovereignty issue should be "addressed", but any changes would be based on Gibraltarians' consent. He preferred the more pragmatic approach, like that adopted with Argentina over the Falkland Islands which produced an agreement on oil exploration in the South Atlantic.

Mr Rifkind said Gibraltar's Chief Minister, Peter Caruana, would shortly introduce stiffer measures to combat illicit activities on the Rock including the laundering of drug money.

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