BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 12.05.02

Film: David Grossman asks whether the British and Spanish Government's attempt to resolve the problem of Gibraltar will be at the expense of the people of Gibraltar.

DAVID GROSSMAN: The very British colony of Gibraltar - it's home to several hundred wild apes but more importantly a community passionately defensive of their right to be British. Just over two square miles of territory, this rock on the southern coast of Spain has somehow managed to cast its shadow over the whole of Europe. Spain and Britain have been locked in a dispute over its sovereignty for three centuries. For years the Rock of Gibraltar stood as a symbol of the British Empire - resolute and immovable. But now that empire has passed into history, its status in the eyes of London is diminished into that of a pebble in the shoe of its diplomatic relations, particularly with Spain. Now Tony Blair and his Spanish counterpart have pledged to resolve the dispute over Gibraltar by the summer, but for the thirty thousand people who live here, who are bitterly opposed to any change to their sovereignty, that sounds like a stitch up and a betrayal. PETER CARUANA: We think that the United Kingdom has got no right whatever to compromise our rights as a colonial people, to decide our own future, by going off to hatch bilateral deals with Spain. PETER HAIN MP: We're never going to hand Gibraltar over to Spain. Full stop, end of story. What we're trying to do is establish a modern sustainable stable status for Gibraltar that gives Gibraltarians security, ends this dispute, and allows us all to move forward to the benefit of Spain, to the benefit of Gibraltar, to the benefit of Britain. GROSSMAN: Showing their colours is something Gibraltarians are very good at. In March almost the whole population joined in protest at Britain's plans to do a deal with Spain to share sovereignty of the rock. When Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, visited last week the entire police force struggled to make sure he got through the streets in one piece. The British Government insists that although exactly what joint sovereignty would mean in practice has yet to be agreed with Spain, the population of Gibraltar have nothing to fear from any deal since it wouldn't be implemented without a referendum. HAIN: Gibraltarians are the only group of British citizens that have a veto over national government policy because they will have a referendum in the end, without which any agreement that we reach with Spain, if we do reach an agreement, cannot be implemented. So, I think it's important that Gibraltarians look to the future and see the opportunities for them, if we do reach an agreement, an end to border delays, an end to all the aggravation from Spain, a modern status for Gibraltar, huge investment coming in. CARUANA: The British government says that nothing will be implemented in practice unless we approve it in a referendum, and that sounds jolly good, but it's only half the story. The other half of the story that they don't explain so clearly in the UK, is that whatever agreements of principles they reach, whatever concessions in principle, the UK makes to Spain on our sovereignty, on our right to decide our own future, on our future options, they will stay on the table as the agreed Anglo Spanish position, even if we reject it in a referendum and we consider that to be a complete betrayal of our future rights as a people. GROSSMAN: A piece of living history, signed in 1713 the Treaty of Utrecht is the reason Britain and Spain agree that Gibraltar can't be given the right of self-determination. In this faded Latin, Britain took sovereignty of Gibraltar forever but agreed to hand it back to Spain if it no longer wanted it. Over a hundred years before Queen Victoria was born it seems, Gibraltar's fate was sealed for all time. HAIN: Look, let's just be sensible about this. The Treaty of Utrecht has the force of international law on the sovereignty issue, nobody disputes, nobody of common sense disputes the essential provision, that if we gave up sovereignty which independence for Gibraltar would mean, it would have to pass to Spain. Now we're not about to do that. We're not about to hand Gibraltar over to Spain and nor are we about to give Gibraltar independence. SIR MALCOLM RIFKIND: We live in a time when self determination, it's supposed to be the fundamental principle, that's what we, what Mr Blair in particular goes round preaching, and if the people of Kosovo are not being required to share sovereignty with Belgrade, which we all know is indeed going to be the situation, they're going to move towards independence, if Mr Blair was prepared to fight a war, for Kosovo not to be controlled by Belgrade, why is he handing over Gibraltar to Madrid. GROSSMAN: They've had a referendum on joining Spain before in Gibraltar - in 1967 only 44 people liked the idea. Then Spain dismissed the exercise as irrelevant. Now Spain says it will accept the result of any referendum so long as it's not treated as legally binding on the two governments. That in itself represents a welcome change in Spanish thinking. JOSEP PIQUE: We accept the democratic expression, by the Gibraltarians, but never these democratic expression, must be interpreted as a self determination rights expression. GROSSMAN: Rock solid Gibraltar certainly isn't. It's actually riddled with miles of tunnels. These on the north face were dug to blast hellfire on the French and Spanish armies who laid siege to Gibraltar in the 1780s. That siege of course has long since been lifted, these tunnels are now a tourist attraction but the siege mentality among the Gibraltar population persists. And given that they are as determined today to resist any change to their sovereignty, as they were in the days when these tunnels resonated with the sound of battle, the question is why is the British Government so committed to forging a deal with Spain. The answer lies partly in the characters of the British and Spanish Prime Ministers. Both see themselves as pragmatic, forward looking politicians, able to set aside ancient disputes, but partly in hard nosed modern EU politics. CHARLES GRANT: I think there are two reasons why the British and Spanish governments are keen to get a deal on Gibraltar. One is that Tony Blair and Mr Aznar, the Spanish Prime Minister are very close allies in Europe. They agree on lots of things, economic reform, close relations with the US and a non federal future for the EU. So they like to work together and they want to remove this bone of contention that has damaged relations between their two countries. The second factor is that other governments in Europe, and the European Commission have been really messed around by the Gibraltar dispute over the years because it has prevented them from reaching deals on a whole load of EU business and NATO business as well. So, therefore they are putting pressure on Britain and Spain to sort this out. HAIN: We've had a situation where European legislation, say on air safety, and on a single sky which will stop delays that irritate us all so often, that Gibraltar finds itself suspended from that, because Spain will not agree to Gibraltar being included because that will be to recognise Gibraltar's sovereignty status, which Spain doesn't do, it feels Gibraltar should be part of Spain. Now, you either have to say the rest of Europe has to suffer and we all continue to have air delays, we all continue to have security problems with air..our airlines, or we actually, proceed in the interests of the whole of Europe. GROSSMAN: But for the people of Gibraltar this argument is perhaps the most offensive of all - that what they see as their fundamental rights should be compromised in the name of diplomatic horse trading CARUANA: The foreign office has identified some advantage to the United Kingdom in reaching a strategic alliance with Spain, in the European community, and Spain has exacted that price from the United Kingdom, if you want a strategic alliance with us, do a deal over Gibraltar, otherwise we won't be the sort of friends that you want us to be in the European Community, and I think it is regrettable frankly that the United Kingdom should feel the need to sacrifice the political rights and aspirations of the people of Gibraltar, simply to curry favour with Spain, GROSSMAN: From Gibraltar the suspicion is that the negotiations on the colony's future are really a bit of a sham, that it's a done deal. But from here in Madrid it's a very different picture. There are still several areas of important difference between Britain and Spain, most crucially whether any agreement, if it emerges, will be final, whether Spain is prepared at last, to renounce its historic claim to full and exclusive sovereignty of the rock. HAIN: One of the reasons why the negotiations which have been going very well, have reached a very tricky and difficult stage to the point where perhaps we won't be able to agree is precisely because we want a permanent settlement. That is the only solution which will be acceptable in Gibraltar and acceptable to Britain and is in Spain's interest as well. Now Spain has had this historic claim, and my message to the Spanish government is let's agree a permanent settlement now, not something that hands Gibraltar over to Spain because we're not going to do that. Not something that is a slippery slope towards full Spanish sovereignty because we're not going to agree that either and even if we did that wouldn't be supported in our Parliament, and wouldn't be supported in the referendum, which we promised the people of Gibraltar. GROSSMAN: But to many Spaniards the sovereignty claim on Gibraltar is cherished in the way that only an ancient grievance can be, it's a battle scar on which oaths are sworn - abandoning it unthinkable. The Spanish government says that although it cannot formally renounce its sovereignty claim it is willing to re-phrase it as a long term, dormant and peaceful aspiration. PIQUE: For any Spanish government the historical aspiration to recover the full sovereignty of Gibraltar is an unavoidable aspiration. But I agree in reaching an agreement which will be an enduring or lasting agreement, but without renouncing forever to these historical aspiration expressed by any Spanish government through the history. So we have to combine these two. I know that this is very difficult to solve. GROSSMAN: You will want to find a form of words that keeps alive in the distant future Spanish sovereignty over the whole of the area you claim, including Gibraltar, but gives a commitment that you will not revisit that claim the day after. PIQUE: Absolutely, absolutely, we have to.. we have to say well, we have reached an agreement, this agreement is stable, this agreement is providing a future of stability and certainty, so there will be no claims immediately later on. But Spain is always aspiring to recover in the future but always through negotiations in very, very friendly approach, to recover the full sovereignty on Gibraltar. RIFKIND: I think the Spanish will take what they are offered, they cannot believe their luck, that they've got a British government naive and foolish enough to be contemplating offering them co-sovereignty, they will take it, they will say thank you very much. They will no doubt behave very nicely for a few years and then they will revert to their claim for full sovereignty and for incorporating Gibraltar into Spain regardless of the wishes of the people of Gibraltar. GROSSMAN: The British military is long used to fighting for Gibraltar, the colony was won and kept because of its huge strategic importance at the mouth of the Mediterranean. The Spanish have started to make noises that they want joint sovereignty of British military installations on the rock as well, that could ultimately mean no deal is possible since Britain long ago made it clear that the British military base will stay British. HAIN: We will retain our full control over the military base there on the rock, which is of key strategic importance to us, another bottom line. GROSSMAN: In Gibraltar though, any row over the future of the base is a side issue that doesn't change the fundamental principle at stake. The right of a people, however few in number, democratically to decide their own future. CARUANA: In the 21st Century, 18th Century problems have got to be resolved in accordance with 21st Century principles, and the 21st Century principles that unite us all, is democracy, human rights and respect for the wishes of people and respect for the rights of colonial peoples to decide their own future and that means that the British Foreign Secretary doesn't rush off to Madrid to do bilateral sovereignty deal with Spain, against the wishes of the people of Gibraltar. PIQUE: It's very important to say to the Gibraltarians, you have to think about it. If you think that the current situation is permanent, you are in a you're in a mistake. You have to think about a new future, more stable, based on a real, a real understanding between very....two important countries in Europe, like the United Kingdom and Spain. GROSSMAN: The negotiations over Gibraltar pick up pace next week. The Spanish Foreign Minister will be travelling to London to continue talks. The Spanish Prime Minister arrives the week after. But even if the two governments do manage to resolve their remaining differences, Gibraltarians certainly won't see the matter as settled.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.