The 1999 PSOE
 Position from the
 on Foreign Affairs

 Rafael Estrella


Rethinking Gibraltar and Spain: an opportunity for courage

The announcement that the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) was, without a change of principles, rethinking Gibraltar, has raised interest in political and media circles. A few months ago, heading a PSOE delegation, I had the opportunity to visit Gibraltar. The Gibraltar Chronicle now offers me the opportunity to describe to its readers the elements of our approach.

There is a basic, longstanding split between Britain and Spain concerning sovereignty. If the Spanish political approach on Gibraltar is dominated by this factor, Gibraltar's political life too is also overshadowed, to a great extent, by the same element. As a result, the deep contradiction between the respective positions is preventing us from having a relationship that might be considered normal even in the particular circumstances of the status quo.

We in the Socialist Party think that this situation does not respond to our realities but runs counter our mutual interests. I have met many people in Gibraltar who have similar views.

With Britain and Spain as members of NATO and the EU, the singular status of Gibraltar and the Gibraltarians is increasingly affecting the relations between both countries and, in particular, Britain's position in the EU. In other words, the present and future of Gibraltar is no longer a non issue in Brittish politics, as it was during the last decades. On the contrary, it is becoming a demanding question on the Agenda of a British Government that faces a difficult crossroads: ie on the one hand, to honour her unilateral commitment with Gibraltarians, Britain has to retain Gibraltar as a colony - against Spanish claims and against the personal aspirations of many Gibraltarians.

On the other, to be coherent with the principles of a modern non- colonial power with which it enters the 21st Century, Britain would have to hand over sovereignty to Spain, against the manifest wishes of the people of Gibraltar.

When I visited Gibraltar, I made it clear to those I met that I was not there to discuss on sovereignty and I stressed from the outset that, although I do not share the well known Gibraltar official position, it has my highest respect. With a single exception, I was rewarded the same attitude; no one tried the useless task of convincing the other, thus allowing the opportunity to focus on co-operation and other compelling matters in a fruitful dialogue.

This is the approach the PSOE would like to introduce in our relations with Gibraltar - and with Britain too. An understanding to put aside the sovereignty factor for a given period and an undertaking to explore areas of co-operation and mutual understanding. During such a period no party should try to take advantage of the other on sovereignty. Any unilateral decision aimed at ameliorating our relations might be reversed and no permanent changes in the status quo would be tried. British and Spanish adherence to such an undertaking would be the guarantee for both Gibraltarians and Spaniards.

The Brussels Process provides the appropriate framework for this new approach, indeed, it contains a sound basis for co-operation. Without giving-up any position, some of its elements could be temporarily put aside during this dialogue; Gibraltar would have no excuses to keep an empty chair. Regardless of British- Gibraltar relations, the British Government remains, as the colonial power, the sole formal counterpart of the Spanish Government. But it is obvious that an enhanced relationship and co-operation would, require dialogue on a daily basis and involve a partnership between the Gibraltar and Spanish authorities. Needless to say, in the diverse areas of mutual interest, our communities would assume the major role.

I am aware that this may not be easy. For example, any new EU Directive affecting the question of sovereignty would continue to be the subject of opting out decisions or reservations as a means to preserve the status quo. This would be a reminder that our co-operation has self-imposed limits. The new focus would also be hard to assume by the Popular Party (PP) whose spokesman was not long ago advocating the closure of the gate. As for the Rock, can you imagine Gibraltar politics deprived of the sovereignty rationale? In politics the culture of confrontation, the notion of living with the enemy is more comfortable that the challenge of overcoming conflict.

Peter Caruana and Abel Matutes are two good examples of this notion that today dominates our relations. In his New Year's message, Mr. Caruana claimed adherence to the PSOE's approach, but to be honest, this does not correspond with his recent political behaviour nor with my personal knowledge. The same applies to Mr. Matutes when, for example, he threatened to make life impossible to Gibraltarians. After launching this warm message, Matutes presented his 1997 proposals, an update of Moran's. As I heard in Gibraltar, the text contains undeniable positive elements, including a proposal on sovereignty that, generous as it can be, was totally rejected by Caruana without the slightest consideration. Another missed opportunity.

I have asked Matutes to declare his letter a working document. In the absence of a British response to the proposals, Aznar might be compelled to retort, putting pressure on both Britain and Gibraltar; we can foresee the consequences of such an escalation. As a working document, the Matutes letter would not be an obstacle, but a component of a far-sighted dialogue.

One can easily imagine some of the steps that, under a new environment, might be taken without permanent changes in the status quo: a return to normality in fishing activities, a stable and smooth passage at the La Linea gate, a joint, cohesive approach to the implications -positive and negative- of financial and other aspects (VAT, etc) of Gibraltar economy, tourism co-operation, including -why not?- assessing perspectives for a joint use of the airport, etc. Citizens of Gibraltar and the Campo would be the driving forces responding to these challenges. Confidence-building, even if reversible, should be stable and removed from uncertainty for a given period of time, after which we would be able to evaluate upon realities and results and to address a further course of action.

British politicians I have met have expressed sympathy for the ideas I have described here. Prominent people in Gibraltar society have expressed to me the same attitude. Maybe it is time that they say it aloud. Political will and courage should not be taken for granted. It is a scarce resource that needs to be stimulated. With the exception of Gibraltar, governments seldom willingly assume a platform coming from the opposition, but governments tend to be sensible to social demands. If Gibraltar society assumes this new focus in our relations, Caruana - and Bossano too - and Aznar will find it hard to remain in the culture of confrontation without facing our real challenges.

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