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EU: Gibraltar Residents Fret Over Sovereignty Talks Between Spain, Britain

  • Askold Krushelnycky

Gibraltar has been a British colony for 300 years. But now the inhabitants of the tiny territory on the southern coast of Spain are worried that Britain may be preparing to hand them back to the Spanish.

Prague, 6 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Most of the once-mighty British Empire, which covered a third of the planet and where, it is said, the sun never set, broke up by the middle of the 20th century.

But some of Britain's colonies, now called overseas territories, did not want to break away from Britain's control. So scattered around the globe are small leftovers from the days of empire, such as the Cayman Islands, the Turks and Caicos, Anguilla, and the remote Falklands Islands in the South Atlantic, over which Britain fought a war in 1982 after Argentina invaded.

In 1997, Britain handed Hong Kong back to China amidst widespread demonstrations by the local population, who did not want to be under communist control.

Now, the 30,000 residents of one of Britain's oldest possessions, Gibraltar, are anxious that talks between Britain and Spain may end with Spain gaining control of the five square kilometers that make up the territory.

Britain took Gibraltar from Spain in 1704. Until the end of the Cold War, Gibraltar -- with its deep-water port -- was Britain's most important naval base outside the United Kingdom. Gibraltar has long been called "the Rock" because of its 400-meter fortresslike cliffs. The Rock enabled Britain to control the Mediterranean Sea's outlet to the Atlantic Ocean and provided a base for Britain's wars against the Spanish, French, and Germans.

After the end of the Cold War, the importance of the naval base dwindled, but Gibraltar maintained a successful economy, underpinned by tourism and by its use as a financial center providing tax havens and discreet bank accounts.

Gibraltar is administered by Britain, which determines issues such as foreign policy and defense. But it has a locally elected authority that determines local matters, such as education, health, and housing.

Over the centuries, Gibraltarians became one of the most loyal people in the British Empire and helped successfully fight off 14 military sieges. All residents speak English, and although most understand Spanish, Gibraltarians have developed their own language, a mixture of Spanish and English they call Janito.

Most have been educated in English schools on the Rock, and their homes look more like the buildings in rural England than the Mediterranean. Under a new British law set to go into effect in May, Gibraltarians and other residents of British territories around the world will be allowed to hold British passports and work in the United Kingdom.

Spain has never reconciled itself to the loss of Gibraltar. It has besieged the Rock and, more recently, during the rule of right-wing Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco until 1985, it enforced an economic blockade, which meant it was either impossible or difficult to cross the frontier between Spain and Gibraltar.

Britain and Spain decided to reopen talks last summer following decades of inactivity and despite a UN General Assembly resolution requesting Britain to end Gibraltar's colonial status.

A spokesman for the British Foreign Ministry, Justin McKenzie-Smith, says Britain and Spain, both members of the European Union and NATO, want to finally solve the Gibraltar question, which remains the only significant disagreement between the two countries.

McKenzie-Smith says the talks are aimed at producing a "framework agreement" by this summer that could lead to a final resolution about control of Gibraltar, as well as resolve practical issues about frontier crossings between Gibraltar and Spain and over Gibraltar's airport.

McKenzie-Smith says Britain is willing to discuss all options, such as whether Gibraltar remains British, gains self-determination, or comes under shared sovereignty between Britain and Spain.

A spokesman for the Spanish Foreign Ministry, who did not want to be named, says the Spanish government favors shared sovereignty as the eventual outcome of the negotiations. He says his government is ready to show flexibility in the negotiations but does not regard self-determination for Gibraltar as an acceptable option.

The Spanish official says the agreement should reflect the will of Gibraltarians under what he calls a "two flags, three voices formula."

McKenzie-Smith says Britain is determined to preserve Gibraltar's traditions and to give the final say about Gibraltar's future to its people in a referendum. Voters in a previous referendum in 1967 overwhelmingly chose not to reunite with Spain. The talks worry many Gibraltarians, who accuse Britain of preparing to hand the territory to Spain.

A spokesman for the Gibraltar government, Francis Cantos, explains why Gibraltarians are worried: "The reason why there is anxiety here is that these discussions are being held between Britain and Spain without Gibraltar's participation."

Both Spain and Britain have invited the Gibraltar government to the talks. But Cantos says Gibraltar fears its voice at the negotiations would be "irrelevant" since Britain and Spain have already agreed that Spain has a right to share in the decision over Gibraltar's future.

"Gibraltar, whose future is being decided, the government demanded basically, or asked for, that participation and dialogue would be in a way in which Gibraltar had its own voice and that nothing could be done above the heads of Gibraltarians. Those conditions have not been met by the United kingdom, who essentially are the ones who represent us."

Cantos told RFE/RL why Gibraltarians are so passionate about preserving their British identity: "Gibraltar has not been Spanish for 300 years, which is longer than the United States has been in existence, for example. And it's been British for 300 years and has developed along British lines since 1704."

He says that although Madrid adopted democracy following Franco's death, Spain still makes life unpleasant for Gibraltarians by imposing bureaucratic restrictions at the frontier crossing that lead to hours or even days of delay for motorists. Cantos says Gibraltarians are still suspicious of Spain.

"Spain appears to have transformed herself into a democracy, and in any sphere of life you can see that has really happened.... Its press, its government, its police force. But when it comes to Gibraltar, they still maintain the same sort of principles and proceed in the same sort of way as Franco did, which is, 'Never mind what the wishes of the people of Gibraltar are. We want the Rock to be returned to Spain.' And it's really about the only issue in which it still behaves as a dictatorial country with no respect whatsoever for what people say."

British spokesman McKenzie-Smith says the next talks with Spain about Gibraltar will take place sometime this spring.

Gibraltar's Chief Minister Peter Caruana is urging all of Gibraltar's residents to join a demonstration on 18 March to oppose the talks between London and Madrid. Government departments and schools will close so that residents can take part.

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