Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence



  By letter dated 16 November 2000, the Clerk to the Foreign Affairs Committee sought answers to further questions which the committee had decided to put to the Department. This memorandum answers those questions.

1.   What responses have been received from (a) Commissioner Vitorino and (b) the European Commission to HMG's representations about border delays; if HMG can provide a schedule of the occasions when British Ministers and officials have raised the issues with Spanish counterparts, outlining the Spanish response on each occasion; and what discussion on Gibraltar in general, and border delays in particular, took place when the two Prime Ministers and two Foreign Ministers last met?

  Officials in the United Kingdom Permanent Representation in Brussels have been in frequent contact at various levels with the Commission on the subject of the continuing delays at the Gibraltar/Spain border. The Commission has said in response to a question from Lord Bethell MEP that it "considers that the checks conducted at the border which lead to these delays could not be proportionate to the legal and practical objectives they are intended to pursue". The Commission confirmed that it has therefore requested observations from Spain "in order to assess whether the particular measures applied at the Spain/Gibraltar border are objectively justified".

  As set out in the Memorandum responding to the Clerk to the Foreign Affairs Committee's letter of 27 June, the issue of border delays is raised frequently with Spanish officials. It is not possible to provide a comprehensive list of all such occasions. The issue was raised most recently at talks between senior officials of the UK and Spain in Madrid on 17 November, following delays of up to three hours on 13 November. The Spanish side attributed these delays to operational activity by the local police.

  The Spanish response has generally been that the delays are caused by the checks legitimately required to implement Spain's obligations to check goods entering the EU customs territory and to prevent smuggling of duty-free and other goods across the frontier; and that these checks will vary in nature according to police intelligence at the time. A further reason which they sometimes give is that the Spanish authorities involved are unable to provide the additional resources to process vehicles more swiftly. We continue to make it clear that we do not regard these as sufficient reasons for the delays, which we believe to be disproportionate to their purpose.

  The Foreign Secretary has regular contacts with Sr Pique on a wide range of issues, including those related to Gibraltar. The main purpose of the meeting between the Prime Minister and Sr Aznar in October was to discuss a variety of European Union issues with Spain.

  The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have consistently made their counterparts aware of our wish to see improved relations between British and Spain lead to material improvements for Gibraltar and to the resolution of various practical problems. The Spanish government is in no doubt about the importance we attach to resolving such problems, including delays at the border and the shortage of telephone numbers.

2.   What is the Government's policy on the invocation of Article 227 in respect of border delays?

  The Government has noted the Committee's recommendation that it take action under Article 227 of the EC Treaty. Such action is extremely rare (since the EC Treaty confers primary responsibility for the enforcement of Community law on the Commission). Since we understand that the Commission is now taking up the matter with Spain, it would be premature for the UK to consider the possibility of action under Article 227 at this stage.

3.   What are the figures for delay times at the border over the period since Mr Vaz's answer to Dr Marek (HC Deb 7 June 2000, col 294w)? (You may wish to be aware of the attached letter from the Chief Secretary in Gibraltar: the Committee hopes that statistics can be collected on an identical basis by the Royal Gibraltar Police and the Government of Gibraltar.)

  The figures are attached as an annex to this Memorandum.

4.   What discussions have there been with the Ministry of Defence about lowering the charges for use of Gibraltar airport?

  The Ministry of Defence has in the past held various discussions with the Government of Gibraltar on this issue. The Ministry of Defence has agreed to consider the potential for reducing landing fees if and when increased usage results in recoveries exceeding the cost of supporting civil flights at Gibraltar airport. The Minister of State for the Armed Forces confirmed this position to a group of MPs led by Andrew Mackinlay MP during a meeting in December 1999.

  In the past there has also been discussion between the Ministry of Defence and the operators at Gibraltar airport.

  The only recent discussions have been with GB Airways over the discount for the new Airbus aircraft which they will introduce on the Gibraltar route next year and which will operate at less than the maximum Take-off Weight on which charges are based.

5.   What responses have been received from the European Commission to HMG's representations about delay in the case of telephone operations; if HMG can provide a schedule of the occasions when British Ministers and officials have raised this issue with (a) Spanish counterparts and (b) the European Commission, outlining the response on each occasion; and what timetable is being followed for a resolution of this issue?

  The Government frequently raises with Spain the issue of the shortage of telephone numbers in Gibraltar. As with the issue of border delays, it is not possible to provide a comprehensive list of all the occasions when the subject has been raised.

  The Government has been in regular contact with the Commission on the issue of the complaints against Spain initiated by the Gibraltar telephone operators. The Commission wrote to the UK Permanent Representative on 7 June, urging the British and Spanish Governments to have discussions to find a solution. Our response of 26 June indicated that we were prepared to discuss the issue with Spain without prejudice to possible infractions proceedings. We immediately sought to initiate discussions with the Spanish Government and have continued to urge them to take action to resolve the problem. We wrote again to the Commission on 28 September. The Commission replied on 14 November, noting that a bilateral solution had not been reached and indicating that it was continuing to consider its position. We are pressing both the Commission and Spain for further progress. The issue was raised substantively with Spain at talks at senior official level in Madrid on 17 November.

6.   Could HMG let the Committee know, in confidence if necessary, what options are being considered for unilateral action to enfranchise Gibraltarians for European elections by 2004?

  The Government is committed to fulfilling its legal obligations to implement the judgment of the ECHR in the Matthews case to enfranchise Gibraltar for elections to the European Parliament. We believe that the best method of doing so is by amendment to the 1976 EC Act on Direct Elections, which would require the agreement of other Member states. Unilateral action would involve legislation to enable Gibraltar citizens to vote in elections to the European Parliament without prior amendment of the 1976 EC Act. We are currently assessing the legal and practical implications of such action. We are considering how Gibraltar might, for the purposes of elections to the European parliament, become part of a UK multi-member Constituency.

7.   What contacts there have been with the Spanish national and regional authorities, and with the Government of Gibraltar on HMS Tireless, and what undertakings were given to either side?

  The Government has kept the Governments of Spain and Gibraltar regularly informed since HMS Tireless arrived in Gibraltar on 19 May. The Chairman of the Naval Nuclear Regulatory Panel is briefing a independent panel of experts appointed by the Government of Gibraltar. The Government is also sharing information with Spain via an ad hoc working group, which includes representatives of the Spanish Nuclear Safety Council and other authorities. The Secretary of State has written to the Chief Minister in response to the Home of Assembly motion making clear that we do not see the cooperation outlined above as having any bearing on broader issues of the type mentioned in the first paragraph of the House of Assembly motion. The Government has also made clear to the Government of Spain that this cooperation has been provided for the purpose of reassurance on public safety and in the spirit of good neighbourliness, without any wider or future implications.

  British Ministers and officials have discussed the HMS Tireless issue frequently with the relevant authorities in Gibraltar and Spain. The Prime Minister has discussed HMS Tireless with the Spanish Prime Minister, for example, in Madrid on 27 October and Zagreb on 24 November. The Governor of Gibraltar and the Commander of British Forces have given regular briefings to the Chief Minister of Gibraltar. The Foreign Secretary has had extensive contacts with the Spanish Foreign Minister. The British Embassy in Madrid have also been in close contact with the central and regional authorities in Spain. The Government acknowledge the legitimate concerns which have been expressed in Gibraltar and the neighbouring region concerning public safety and have undertaken to maintain this flow of information and to do all they can to allay the concerns of the people of Gibraltar and of Spain.

8.   The Government will be aware of the Committee's view that the Brussels Process should be discontinued. However, since the Government does not share this view, the Committee wishes to know whether there will be a meeting under the Brussels Process in the next six months and, if not, why the Government believes that the Brussels Process is active.

  The Brussels Process is a framework for talks which was established with a view to overcoming a wide range of differences between Spain and the UK over Gibraltar. It does not, however, preclude discussion of Gibraltar issues in other contexts, for example, in other Ministerial or official-level meetings. We believe it is important to keep open all our channels of communication with Spain.

  Meetings under the Brussels Process do not take place according to a set timetable. There have been several periods since the process of meetings began in 1984 when there has been no formal meeting. No meeting at either Ministerial or official level is currently scheduled.

Foreign & Commonwealth Office

5 January 2001

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