Andreas Whittam Smith: Why we should hand back Gibraltar to the Spanish

'British policy has treated the Rock as we do the Parthenon sculptures - what we hold, we keep'
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At other times, it might have been the main story on newspaper front pages. Britain and Spain are to hold negotiations about the future of Gibraltar. Sovereignty will be on the agenda. Mr. Blair said that he was determined to make progress in the talks. They will start in Brussels on 20 November. That was announced on Friday. It made half a column of news tucked away inside the newspapers. Once upon a time, Southern Rhodesia, the Falklands and Hong Kong in turn dominated British politics for months on end. But not, apparently, Gibraltar. It seems to have lost its hold on the British mind.

Yet this rocky promontory, with its dockyards and 30,000 residents, overlooking the narrow straits between Spain and Morocco, has been under British control since 1713. Stubbornly, we have refused to give it up. There have been moments when a move could have been considered appropriate. After Franco's death, when Spain returned to democracy, for instance. Or when Spain subsequently entered the European Union. But until now, British policy has treated the Rock rather as it does the Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum – what we hold, we keep.

It has been a pretty silly attitude. Gibraltar is a piece of grit in the Anglo-Spanish relationship. Its continued ownership brings no advantage to the UK which couldn't be secured by agreement with Spain. The Royal Navy's facilities could be safeguarded. As for Gibraltar's role as a tax haven, the sooner all that comes to an end the better, so far as I am concerned.

One, and only one major difficulty confronts the negotiators. The British Government remains committed to the principle, first stated in 1969, that Gibraltar's sovereignty would not change unless the 30,000 residents of the colony approved. As matters stand, it is unlikely that such consent, through the holding of a referendum, would be given now. The chief minister, Peter Caruana, has refused to join the talks between the two governments. So what is the answer?

It is not, surely, the response given by Peter Hain. "I can give a pledge," he said, "that we will never ask any Gibraltarian to sacrifice their British citizenship unless they freely choose to do so". In other words, the minister is suggesting that the key issue is retention of British citizenship rather than sovereignty itself. This is not right.

For within the context of the European Union, a British passport doesn't bring any great benefit as compared with holding a Spanish passport. Spanish people can anyway come to Britain quite freely, obtain employment here, set up home and enjoy the benefits of a National Health Service which, as it happens, uses a growing number of Spanish nurses. As it stands, therefore, Mr Hain's formulation of the British pledge, has very little value. His words imply that Gibraltarians would be in a situation no different from that of British ex-pats living in, say, Marbella further up the coast, free to return to Blighty whenever they wish.

Except that they are not ex-pats. Absolutely not. They were mostly born in Gibraltar. That is where they were educated, where their families and friends live, where they work and where they hope to end their days. Mr Hain's confirmation that they will retain their British citizenship means only this: that if Gibraltarians did not like Spanish rule then they would be perfectly at liberty to give up all their familiar surroundings, to leave their homeland, to find new employment in a country which is very different from what they are used to and to end their lives on, perhaps, the chilly South Coast, looking across to Northern France rather than North Africa.

Mr Hain's way around the British Government's pledge won't work. Even so, Britain and Spain should be able to reach an agreement which could be sold to the Gibraltarians. It would obviously have to be staged. Diplomats are fond of what they call "confidence building measures".

This is what is required here. Integration has advantages which could be demonstrated to Gibraltarians. Border controls could gradually be eased. Gibraltar could be given the chance to act as a capital market and financial services centre for part of Southern Spain. Telecommunications and airport difficulties could be tackled. Gibraltar could be shown a future as part of a modern European state rather than as a historic remnant of a vanished Empire. Progress towards these ends could be given a timetable. And at a guaranteed point some way through the process, a referendum could be fixed. By then Spain would have had to have shown strong evidence that it can provide security and prosperity to the citizens of Gibraltar to gain an affirmative vote.

Why should it not do so? And if it does, why should Gibraltar jib at becoming a major city in Spain rather than linger on with the demeaning status of colony?