A rock, a hard place, and an opportunity

Britain and Spain must seize the chance to improve relations over Gibraltar, says Tristan Garel-Jones
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The election yesterday of Peter Caruana as new Chief Minister of Gibraltar may prove to be a watershed. The current position in Gibraltar is unsatisfactory for Britain, for Spain and, most importantly, for Gibraltar itself. It is at best a farce and at worst a potential tragedy.

It is farcical that two grown up countries like Spain and Britain, with a combined population of nearly 100 million, should be in a state of permanent mutual suspicion over the fate of 26,000 people whose principle fault, it seems, is to have been of some service to both nations in the course of their imperial history.

It is a potential tragedy because the Gibraltarians themselves, increasingly frustrated by the cul-de-sac in which they find themselves, have not, I confess, always acted with wisdom in the past. Nor has Spain. Any British minister with responsibility for the colony dreads waking up one morning and reading something ghastly about Gibraltar on the front pages of every newspaper.

The election of Peter Caruana does provide an opportunity. The first thing that has to happen is that both Spain and Britain must keep quiet for a short period while the new Chief Minister finds his feet. Imprudent and inflammatory comments from Madrid would not be helpful now.

The key to success lies in recognising that the current constitution of Gibraltar, set out in the Gibraltar Act 1969, is entirely unserviceable for modern Gibraltar. It was drafted before Britain and Gibraltar entered the European Union and, indeed, before Spain herself acceded. It was drafted at a time when Gibraltar was a crucial part of Britain's defence structure and that of Nato. It was drafted when Spain was not a member of Nato and lived under Franco's dictatorship.

Gibraltar needs a new constitution. That constitution must reflect her membership of the EU and the new reality of political, military and trading patterns. This will not be easy. First, Spain must accept that the constitutional initiative must come from Gibraltar and its people. No British government led by John Major will act against the wishes of the people of Gibraltar. That is just a fact of life. But Gibraltarians have to accept that if they want a new constitution, Spain's acquiescence must be obtained. This is the only way to achieve a proper definition of Gibraltar's place in the world, to give them their autonomy in certain areas, to ensure their voice is heard in Europe and to enable them to reap the full benefits of being the southern gateway to the largest trading block in the world. Whether we like it or not, Spain has what the diplomats call a droit de regard in the matter. And Britain, too, has to swallow hard. If we really believe that the welfare and the will of the Gibraltarians matters, then we must move this issue from the back burner and take a few risks. For the last 15 years Gibraltar has been a low priority: the British government has simply tried to keep out of trouble.

The new Chief Minister in Gibraltar might be prepared to move forward. Importantly, too, we have a new Prime Minister in Spain whose personal chemistry with John Major is excellent. A British prime minister who has been capable of making progress in Northern Ireland is certainly capable of moving forward on Gibraltar.

While I had responsibility for Gibraltar, I came, slightly to my own surprise, to hold the Gibraltarians in very considerable affection. They are extraordinary people. They have many of the best qualities of the British, an efficient public service and the ability to play as a team when necessary. But these British qualities have a charming Andalucian ingredient which gives them a verve and a capacity to improvise with humour and wit that is characteristic of the part of the world that they inhabit. For too long now they have unwittingly been the cause of disagreement between two great European countries. We now have the opportunity to make them a symbol of a new era of friendship between Spain and Britain. I can think of no better destiny for the people of Gibraltar.

The writer was a Foreign Office minister from 1990 to 1993, responsible for Gibraltar.