Gibraltar should get its future into perspective

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As they take to the streets today to celebrate 300 years of uninterrupted British rule over their rocky outcrop (and annoy the Spanish), Gibraltarians will bask in the satisfaction of having seen off the latest in a long line of threats to their special status. The referendum on the principle of joint sovereignty called by their chief minister, Peter Caruana, two years ago comprehensively sabotaged talks in progress between the Spanish and British governments. With more pressing matters now on the minds of both countries, this piece of unfinished colonial business looks set to linger indefinitely.

As they take to the streets today to celebrate 300 years of uninterrupted British rule over their rocky outcrop (and annoy the Spanish), Gibraltarians will bask in the satisfaction of having seen off the latest in a long line of threats to their special status. The referendum on the principle of joint sovereignty called by their chief minister, Peter Caruana, two years ago comprehensively sabotaged talks in progress between the Spanish and British governments. With more pressing matters now on the minds of both countries, this piece of unfinished colonial business looks set to linger indefinitely.

This would probably suit most Gibraltarians, but they would be foolish to imagine that the issue has been resolved forever. Reports that Spain pressured the US not to send the USS McFaul to take part in this week's festivities show that Madrid is still as sensitive about Gibraltar as ever, and many of the territory's problems remain. Tensions will continue to simmer over incursions into Gibraltar's waters and Spanish control over the joint border remains an inconvenience. The isolation of Gibraltar also looks increasingly anomalous in a European Union committed to the free movement of peoples.

Mr Caruana is right to argue that sovereignty is not a "live issue" at the moment, but the entrenched resentments have not gone away. The main difficulty in recent years has been one of perception. Mr Caruana managed to portray talks between Britain and Spain as a plot to deliver Gibraltar up to Spanish control. The Foreign Office's tetchy response to Mr Caruana's referendum enabled the Tories and other sympathisers to present the issue as a simple battle for democracy. The subsequent landslide "no" vote represented a major failure for diplomacy.

The people of Gibraltar must, of course, have a free vote on any future proposals that will affect them, as the British government stresses. But the UK does have a right to determine the fate of its dependent territories without being dictated to by vested interests. When the euphoria of these celebrations has faded, perhaps Gibraltarians will discover a more realistic perspective on their future.

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