Gibraltar reacted with shock and disbelief to Jack Straw's announcement in the Commons yesterday that Britain was pursuing its aim of striking a joint-sovereignty deal with Spain.
The Chief Minister, Peter Caruana, who was clearly thunderstruck by the announcement, called an emergency meeting of the Gibraltar government.
"There is more chance of hell freezing over than the people of Gibraltar ever voting in favour of joint sovereignty with Spain," he said.
Mr Caruana said the Foreign Secretary's statement would be interpreted by Gibraltar residents "as a complete betrayal of their right to self-determination of their future".
Only hours earlier, Mr Caruana had told the BBC that he thought the Anglo-Spanish talks had collapsed and that Britain should acknowledge that its attempt to make a deal against the wishes of the Gibraltarians had failed.
People on the Rock took to the streets for noisy protests, banging pots and pans, and honking their car horns and waving placards in Convent Place, Gibraltar's government house, in fury at what they considered Mr Straw's latest act of treachery.
The protests, which had been planned to coincide with talks between Mr Straw and his Spanish counterpart yesterday, took on a deeper and darker militancy.
The talks were cancelled when the Spanish Foreign Minister, Josep Pique, was replaced in a cabinet reshuffle this week.
Mr Straw told a sparsely populated House of Commons that the joint sovereignty deal preserving Gibraltar's identity and character was essential for the EU to move forward.
He said Gibraltar should retain its customs and way of life and its people would keep the right to British nationality but also have the right to obtain Spanish nationality. In his most explicit statement on progress in 12 months of talks, Mr Straw told MPs the two governments were "closer than ever before to overcoming nearly 300 years of fraught history". He added: "The only way of seeking for Gibraltar a stable and prosperous future is through a comprehensive and permanent settlement of this dispute with Spain."
The Gibraltar opposition leader, Joe Bossano, said: "This has been a great shock to all of us, the first we knew of it was from the BBC. Mr Straw didn't even have the courtesy to warn Gibraltar he was making his surprise statement." Mr Bossano said Gibraltarians had felt they would, in the end, be sold out and "the problem of joint sovereignty would come back to haunt us".
Gibraltarians were furious that Britain had raised Spanish expectations of a historic deal without first convincing its subjects on the Rock.
Mr Straw insisted that Britain would only share sovereignty with Spain if the territory's residents approved the deal in a referendum.
Mr Bossano said the supporters of joint sovereignty could be counted "on the fingers of one hand". He said any Anglo-Spanish agreement would be on the same terms offered by General Franco in 1968. "It is an absolute scandal," he said. "Sovereignty can't be shared with the Spanish. Jack Straw knows that full well."
Maurice Xiberras, the former leader of the opposition, said future generations of Gibraltarians would "associate the name of Jack Straw with infamy and betrayal".
"Others share the responsibility for this shameful act, but no British Foreign Secretary worthy of the name, should have stooped so low as to announce Her Majesty's Government intention to share the sovereignty of Gibraltar,'' he said.
Speculation had risen in Gibraltar that the talks between Spain and Britain had broken down, because of the sudden postponement of Mr Straw's visit to the territory planned for yesterday. He was booed by more than 3,000 demonstrators during a chaotic visit in May.
But Spanish commentators said the delay had been ordered to enable the new Foreign Minister, Ana Palacio, who was appointed on Wednesday, to spend more time on the issue. The next round of talks is expected to be held at Spain's request.
The Spanish government was upbeat after Mr Straw's statement. "We consider it positive news," said a Foreign Ministry spokesman.
But in a sign that there is still a way to go from Madrid's point of view, the spokesman added: "Spain does not, however, see it as a permanent solution, which can only be the return of full sovereignty for Spain."
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