Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 20 - 43)



  20. You are free to disclose that. But I think you must get the very distinct impression from this Committee, and I do not think this is just Sir John Stanley and me, I think it is the feeling of the whole Committee, that the Government is not approaching this problem sufficiently robustly. And I have now given you an example of, somewhere, you know and I do not, whether or not this issue was raised, but, I have to say, if it was not, and, clearly, if it was raised, it was not raised successfully, because we did not succeed in getting any concession from the Spanish in return, if it was not raised, I think that is a terrible omission on the part of the Government, that we gave this enormously valuable concession to Spain, for which we will pay a huge part of the Structural Fund budget, without getting anything in return. And I just want you to go away from this Committee with a very, very clear understanding that we think that the Government is not being robust enough about this, and that this lack of robustness is not engendering good relations with Spain, if anything, it is making the relations with Spain worse, and this problem will go on and on. And this Committee will come back to this issue again and again and again, so I hope that the Government will adopt a more robust attitude to it. And I am, I have to say, very surprised, or I would be, if I were to find out that the issue was not raised at Nice in connection with this Structural Fund veto?
  (Mr Vaz) As I have said to you, Mr Maples, there is no need for you to be astonished about these matters. I am not disclosing to you the discussions that took place. We never agree to a concession to any of our allies unless we get something in return; that is the nature of British diplomacy. It is not a matter of which party is in power, it is the whole philosophy of British diplomacy over the last a hundred years, we will never agree to something unless we get something back.

Mr Mackinlay

  21. We have discussed with both you and your predecessors the Matthews case, where this woman succeeded, despite the Home Office's view, in getting a judgement which said she was entitled to vote in the European elections. To our dismay, the opening response of Her Majesty's Government was that this would require an amendment to the Treaties, and, both with your predecessors and yourself, we have pressed you on that, and I remember you, personally, under pressure from us, indicating that, "Yes, we'd like to get the agreement of the others," which clearly means Spain, "but, if not," and we pressed you on this, "unilaterally, the United Kingdom would introduce its own legislation for the next European elections to allow the people of Gibraltar to vote in the European elections." I think that was the way it was left, I think I am not doing you an injustice, Minister, I do not know if you would confirm that is more or less fair enough, is it?
  (Mr Vaz) Yes.

  22. Right; well, then, in the latest missive we have got, this GIBF 4d, we say to you, "Could Her Majesty's Government let the Committee know, in confidence, if necessary, what options are being considered for unilateral action to enfranchise Gibraltarians for European elections by 2004?". And then, in your reply, you repeat this mantra, which I thought we had moved away from, namely that it says: "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." You have gone back, or are going back, on what you, personally, have said to this Committee, and I find that very disquieting, unless this is an error. So, this afternoon, I give you this opportunity; will you give an undertaking to Parliament again that Her Majesty's Government will ensure that the people of Gibraltar, are on the electoral register, will vote for Members of the European Parliament at the next European elections, come hell or high water?
  (Mr Vaz) Well, I do not know whether a cliche is appropriate on such an important issue of this kind. I will give you this unequivocal undertaking, that we will do everything within our power, legally, to ensure that the people of Gibraltar are enfranchised before the 2004 elections.

  23. But you are slipping?
  (Mr Vaz) I am not slipping.

  24. You said, "everything within our power"?
  (Mr Vaz) Yes.

  25. "Everything within our power;" so you are going back on what undertakings you have given?
  (Mr Vaz) No, Mr Mackinlay, I am not. I know you feel strongly about this.

  26. No; you gave evidence to this Committee, you acknowledged, you acknowledged that it was something which this Parliament could do, regardless of what the others said, and now you are reneging on it?
  (Mr Vaz) No, I am not.


  27. Minister, have you ruled out unilateral action by the Government, if we fail to get the agreement of other parties?
  (Mr Vaz) No, Mr Chairman, I have not, I have not ruled that out, we have not. I have made it quite clear, we unequivocally accept our obligations and we will do everything we possibly can. There are two options, as he knows, the amendment of the 1976 EC Act, we have taken legal advice, and there is an option, which we are considering, as we have said, on the last occasion when we gave evidence, Mr Mackinlay, to take unilateral action for enfranchisement of the people of Gibraltar. As he knows, as the Committee will know, unilateral action would mean bringing in domestic legislation without amending the EC Act, and we are committed to that;[1] we are not committed to that course of action, we are committed to considering it.

  Chairman: So we have no misunderstanding, by—

Mr Mackinlay

  28. (—Inaudible—)
  (Mr Vaz) Are you satisfied, Mr Mackinlay?

  29. No; no, I am not.
  (Mr Vaz) Why?

  30. (—Inaudible—) considering it.
  (Mr Vaz) No, we have to consider it.


  31. Just to be clear, in response to that, there are two possible options, and if we cannot succeed with the agreement of our allies we will go forward unilaterally?
  (Mr Vaz) I am not giving the option now, Mr Chairman; that would be a departure. I am saying, these are the options that are available. Let us deal with them in this way, if I may, if I may just explain. The Matthews judgement, in my view, has to be given effect, it has to be, we have an unequivocal obligation to ensure that we comply with Matthews.

Mr Maples

  32. Before 2004, presumably?
  (Mr Vaz) The third point, we are—

Mr Mackinlay

  33. Was that a `yes'?
  (Mr Vaz) If I could just do my third point.

  34. You did not answer it?
  (Mr Vaz) I am trying to, because I am actually answering.


  35. Finish first, and then Dr Godman.
  (Mr Vaz) We are seeking enfranchisement before the 2004 elections. There are two options, either an amendment to the 1976 EC Act, or the option of taking unilateral action to enfranchise Gibraltar; unilateral action would mean bringing in domestic legislation without amending the Act. We want to do this. Do not attack us, Mr Mackinlay, on the grounds that we do not want to do this; we want to do this.

Dr Godman

  36. May I say, Minister, that I agree wholeheartedly with John Maples' observation that the Spanish ought to be wooing the people of Gibraltar, rather than haranguing and harassing them, as they have done down the years. May I say, also, I agree with, fully support, the principle of consent; that is, if the Gibraltarians seek to remain United Kingdom citizens then that wish must be honoured, not only by the Government but by Spain, other members of the European Union and, indeed, the United Nations. Coming back to Senor Pique's address, he said, and I am quoting from the first paragraph on page 9: "The British attitude, apart from breaching what has been agreed, is also a contradiction; they reject dialogue on questions of sovereignty but appeal for it on `co-operation'." And that is in direct contradistinction with what you say, in your letter to the Chairman, and I quote: "Provided the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht are respected, the question of constitutional reform in Gibraltar is a matter for the United Kingdom and Gibraltar, although, as your Committee highlighted in its 1999 report on Gibraltar, Spanish concerns are clearly a matter both sides will wish to bear in mind." Now where the Irish Republic is concerned, and I know there are many more differences in Irish/British relations than there are vis-a"-vis Northern Ireland and Gibraltar in Spanish/British relations, we saw successive administrations here arguing that Articles 2 and 3 should be, if you like, abrogated of the Irish constitution, which, of course, made territorial claims on Northern Ireland. And what we said, again, all of us, in the House of Commons and elsewhere, support the principle of consent, in relation to the people of Northern Ireland, that is, if they choose to stay as British Citizens then that has to be honoured and protected. Why have you not made similar arguments, in your discussions, or negotiations, with the Spanish, that the principle of consent, in relation to the UN Charter, in relation to the democratic rights of the people who live in Gibraltar, must be honoured by all parties, and that is, of course, especially true of Spain?
  (Mr Vaz) I think that Dr Godman will know that, in all the discussions that we have had on Gibraltar, because this is not a new issue, as you have said, the Committee has revisited it on many occasions, the people of Gibraltar live with the situation; their wishes and the wishes of the Government of Gibraltar are paramount, and we will continue to listen carefully to what they have to say. You will know the results of the last time the people of Gibraltar decided to exercise their views on these matters, there is no reason to believe that that has changed, and that we will continue always to approach this matter on the basis that we have always done so, the consent of the people, the wishes of the people and the wishes of the Government.

  37. So you reject the claim, or the allegation, that you are irresolute in terms of defending the principle of consent, when you discuss Gibraltar with your Spanish colleagues?
  (Mr Vaz) I totally reject it.

Sir John Stanley

  38. Minister, I would put it to you that it is absolutely demonstrable, from abundant evidence, that it is the consistent and determined policy of the Spanish Government to stunt and arrest the economic and business development of Gibraltar, and this is reflected most clearly, I suggest, in their deliberate policy of restricting the availability of telephone lines into Gibraltar. In our Committee, we have been raising this absolutely consistently since our report of June 1999, and we recommended, in that report, "We recommend that the Government take all steps open to it under the Treaties to ensure that a determination is made by the European Commission, with no further delay, in the case of telephone operations." We have returned to this issue again and again, and we returned to it in the latest series of questions we put to you, to which you replied in GIBF 4d, and the Government's reply, on every occasion, is simply, "We are raising this." You open your reply to our questions with this sentence: "The Government frequently raises with Spain the issue of the shortage of telephone numbers in Gibraltar." And you end your reply: "The issue was raised substantively with Spain at talks at senior official level in Madrid on 17 November." Minister, it is patently clear that raising this issue is simply producing no results, and we have an instance here of, effectively, economic sanctions being conducted by an EU Member State against a British dependency. It is totally intolerable. So I must ask you, as your policy of raising this issue is producing absolutely zero results, when are you going to adopt a policy which is going to enable Gibraltar to have the access to telephone lines and the proper business communications that should be available to each and every territorial area within the EU?
  (Mr Vaz) I disagree with Sir John's analysis. I think we are doing everything that we can, and I will ask Mr Hill now to brief us on the latest letter that we have sent to the European Commission. When I spoke to Chief Minister Caruana, on the last occasion, and, indeed, with the Governor today, this is an issue that does remain uppermost in their minds; it is important for their commercial—

Mr Mackinlay

  39. (—Inaudible—) ?
  (Mr Vaz) Yes; and they expressed it to me, and, therefore, it is now uppermost in my mind, Mr Mackinlay. My mind is always full of Gibraltar, because it is an important issue, and it is important to them, and, as a result of it being raised with me, it was raised again. Mr Hill will tell us the latest position on telephones.
  (Mr Hill) Our permanent representative has written again to the senior Community official, Commission official, dealing with this matter, again, stressing the urgency of the issue and also stressing that urgent action is required. And, also, as our memorandum stated, we have been in contact with Spain, we have raised it at our talks which we had in November, and we are very much hoping, also, to continue to raise it with the Spanish Government as well.

Sir John Stanley

  40. But, Minister, that answer is just a reiteration of a policy that has failed totally, ever since this Committee has been raising it with you, for over two years. Letter-writing, raising, is not producing any results?
  (Mr Vaz) I am not sure, Sir John, what you would expect us to do?

  Mr Maples: Take infraction proceedings.

Sir John Stanley

  41. It is open to the British Government actually to negotiate in a very much more tough way; as you constantly say, other EU Member States want things from us, and we simply are not prepared actually to play a hard ball with the Spanish Government in relation to Gibraltar. I am afraid, that is the only conclusion that, certainly, I, for one, can draw from what is happening?
  (Mr Vaz) I cannot accept that, Mr Chairman, I cannot accept it.


  42. Minister, let me wind up in this way. One, I thank you, on behalf of the Committee; but the message is very clear, there is a total consensus in this Committee that the policy of Spain in respect of Gibraltar, the border, the telephones, is wholly intolerable and unacceptable. There is, equally, a consensus on the Committee that the policy both of the previous administration and of this Government has not been robust enough, in respect of Spain. We have the option of infraction proceedings at the European Union; we understand that those officials at the European Union will want a quiet life, they will say that "This is a bilateral matter; please go away." Our job is to ensure that it does not go away and that Spain no longer has the free rein to carry out those policies which we, all of us, believe to be intolerable. Now I cannot say what the successor Committee will do after the election, I would hope that they will be equally resolute on behalf of Gibraltar, and anyone from this Committee who stays on, I am confident, will be very ready to harry you, or your successor, in that respect. But I hope that is the message you do take away, that, perhaps, for the Foreign Office, Spain is the big picture; for us, the injustices to Gibraltar are an equally big picture.
  (Mr Vaz) May we follow the (Salmon ?) procedures, and give me the right of reply, Mr Chairman?

  43. Indeed.
  (Mr Vaz) I understand what you are saying, but can I say to you this. We have a number of senior officials working on a daily basis with Gibraltar, with the Government, with the Governor; ministerial time is taken up with this issue constantly. I can assure you we are doing everything we possibly can on these crucial issues, and we will continue to do our best in order to achieve a satisfactory solution for the people of Gibraltar.

  Chairman: Thank you.

1   Note by witness: sentence should read . . . we are committed to considering that. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 11 April 2001