Rock's colonial status tops election agenda

National identity vies with economic survival, writes Elizabeth Nash in Gibraltar

Elizabeth Nash
Wednesday 15 May 1996 23:02

There are not many labour leaders who go to the housing estates at election time and wow the masses with details of United Nations resolutions on decolonisation. But Gibraltar's Chief Minister, Joe Bossano, seeking a third term in general elections today, promises to end the Rock's colonial status and negotiate a "free association" with Britain by 2000.

His message plays well from the back of a truck in Laguna estate, a grim housing complex where scarlet and red flags of his ruling Gibraltar Socialist Labour Party flutter from the windows.

The fine detail may escape some listeners, but the subtext is clear: there will be no concession to Spain. As the campaign stickers on youngsters' baseball caps proclaim: "Give Spain no Hope."

Hard upon Mr Bossano's heels is an increasingly confident conservative opposition that wants to mend fences with Madrid and warm up relations with Britain. The Gibraltar Social Democrats (GSD), led by the lawyer, Peter Caruana, condemn Mr Bossano's hardline message as a dead end that promises only isolation and ruin for the Gibraltarian economy.

Mr Caruana says that if elected, he would be prepared to talk to Spain "on matters of mutual co-operation and to try to reduce tensions and hostility". But he insists that discussion of sovereignty would remain taboo. "I can assure you that there will be absolutely no negotiations on the question of sovereignty. Sovereignty is simply not negotiable," he told a street rally this week.

Mr Bossano's view is that any kind of talks with Madrid would be a step on a slippery slope that could lead to surrender of sovereignty. Spain must make the first move, he insisted yesterday. "We aren't prepared to talk to Spain until they stop harassing us, taking pot-shots at us from their bedroom window and trying to bring our economy down."

Mr Bossano is ready to take on Spain's new conservative government, which he thinks will be tougher than its predecessor. Spain's new Foreign Minister, Abel Matutes, recently warned Gibraltar of further border restrictions unless drugs and tobacco smuggling were stamped out. "This is an ominous threat," Mr Bossano said yesterday. "I anticipate they will give Britain a hard time and start thumping the table."

Today's close contest has divided Gibraltar's harmoniouscommunity, arousing a level of ill-feeling that many here say they have not seen for years. In an intensely personalised campaign, the Caruana camp accuse the Bossano government of favouritism and creating a climate of fear, and Bossano supporters say Mr Caruana is ready to sell out to Spain.

Gibraltarians have resisted Spanish claims for centuries, forging a strong sense of their own identity and deep suspicions of Madrid's intentions. Mr Bossano enjoyed widespread popular support for years by bolstering this sense of pride and nationhood.

But his support has ebbed away. The opposition says the economy is heading for crisis, a claim Mr Bossano dismisses as nonsense. But the economy is not flourishing. His clampdown last year on illegal launches smuggling tobacco meant a loss of livelihood for many. But many who welcomed that move are fed up with Spanish border controls hampering their freedom of movement and dampening trade and tourism.

The opposition, strongly supported by the business community, takes a pragmatic approach. It wants to promote friendly relations with Britain and to end hostility with Spain as the route to prosperity. The GSD's deputy leader, Peter Montegriffo, says: "Our policy is to engage Spain in dialogue that would benefit us and the Spanish side of the border. We want the normalisation and strengthening of relations, without Spain believing it is making advances towards sovereignty."

Mr Bossano tried to promote Gibraltar as an offshore financial services sector as a way of developing economic self-sufficiency and effective autonomy from both Britain and Spain. But this has not been a success. Yesterday he admitted "the finance centre has not delivered the profits we expected".

He blames Britain for not allowing Gibraltar to sell its services within the European Union, but Mr Montegriffo says that the finance centre option was never a viable economic strategy to fill the void left by Britain's closure of the Ministry of Defence naval dockyard. Prosperity, he says, depends on good relations with Britain. "Why should we antagonise the best friend we have?" he asks.

"I have been a negotiator all my life. We're cheesed off with Britain and Spain trying to devise a solution for us," Mr Bossano said. "We're coming up with solutions of our own. I'm seeking a mandate for decolonisation and free association under the British crown like that enjoyed by the Isle of Man."

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