Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Research paper written for Sir John Stanley by the International Affairs and Defence Section, House of Commons Library

Gibraltar: Joint Sovereignty Proposal

  You asked me to look at the evolution of the joint sovereignty proposal for Gibraltar, with particular reference to the communication of this idea by the British Government to Parliament.

  You suggested that joint sovereignty might have been raised by the British and Spanish Prime Ministers prior to the relaunch of the Brussels Process in July 2001. The two leaders held bilateral talks at Chequers on 10 April 1999, at which Gibraltar, amongst other things, was discussed. No mention was made in the edited transcript of the doorstep interview of a discussion of the Matutes proposal, which was the only joint sovereignty proposal still awaiting a British response at the time:

        Question: I would like to ask both you, Prime Minister and President Aznar, whether you are going to talk about Gibraltar [. . .].

        Prime Minister: Yes of course we will discuss Gibraltar in the course of our discussion together and we have already indicated that we will give very careful consideration to the paper that was given to us.

        Senor Aznar: Naturally we are going to be talking about Gibraltar but as usual, we will do it with the greatest discretion and as little as we can about it in public. Without of course leaving aside the fact that we are facing up to the problems and that we will talk about it as necessary and our Ministers of Foreign Affairs will continue working on the question of Gibraltar as they have up to now.[70]

  A number of parliamentary questions in early 1999 sought to clarify the Government's position on the Matutes proposal:


    Mr Howard: Will the Minister reply to just one of the questions that I put to her earlier, which she completely ignored? Why has the Foreign Secretary not yet rejected the proposals from Spain for joint sovereignty over Gibraltar?

        Ms Quin: We have a framework for discussing issues with Spain, which was adopted by the previous Government, and we have continued that practice. Those proposals will be examined within that framework without, in any sense, undermining the commitment in the Gibraltar constitution to which many Hon Members on both sides of the House have rightly referred.[71]


    Mr Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe): When, in January 1997, the Spanish Foreign Minister proposed joint sovereignty for Gibraltar, within days, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the then Foreign Secretary, said:

"The idea is a non-starter. The simple point is that Gibraltar people want to remain British citizens. And that is the end of the matter."

  Will the Foreign Secretary repeat his predecessor's words?

        Mr Cook: The fact is that no proposals were tabled in January 1997. There was an oral discussion between the two Foreign Ministers, as there has been between me and Sr Matutes on six occasions in the past year. The Rt Hon and learned Gentleman is imagining any U-turn, weakening or retreat in the British position. As I have said to the Spanish Foreign Minister and to the House, the Government's position is that there can be no compromise on sovereignty against the wishes of the Gibraltar people. Their views on the matter are sovereign. We stand firmly by the commitment given by a previous Labour Government in 1969—that the people of Gibraltar will freely and democratically decide whether there should be any transfer of sovereignty.[72]


    Mr Trend: To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs when he intends to respond to the Spanish proposals for joint sovereignty of Gibraltar, tabled on 10 December 1997.

    Ms Quin: We have always said that we will respond to the Spanish proposals at the next Brussels Process meeting. No date has yet been fixed.

    Mr Trend: To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what representations he has received from then residents of Gibraltar over Spanish proposals for joint sovereignty of Gibraltar, tabled on 10 December 1997; and if he will make a statement.[73]

    Ms Quin: We have received numerous individual representations from residents of Gibraltar, as well as a petition organised by the Self Determination for Gibraltar Group. All have called on HMG to reject the proposals.


    Mr Trend: To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he raised the Spanish proposals for joint sovereignty of Gibraltar during his meeting with the Spanish Foreign Minister on 21 February; what was the result of the discussions on the issues of border delays and possible restrictions on commercial over-flights; and if he will make a statement.

        Ms Quin: I refer the Hon Gentleman to the answer I gave to the Hon Member for Witney (Mr Woodward) today. The meeting between the Foreign Secretary and the Spanish Foreign Minister on 21 February was not part of the Brussels Process. The Spanish proposals tabled at the last Brussels Process meeting were not discussed in detail. We have made clear we will respond to Sr Matutes' proposals at the next meeting of that process. The Foreign Secretary confirmed to Sr Matutes that we were happy to have such a meeting.[74]

  I cannot find a record of a bilateral meeting at that level at which joint sovereignty was specifically or formally discussed, although, as I wrote in the Research Paper on Gibraltar in May 2002, the two leaders or their foreign ministers would have met informally in the margins of high level EU meetings, such as the Stockholm European Council in March 2001, and at NATO summits.

  The UK position had been to withhold its views on the Matutes joint sovereignty proposal until a meeting under the Brussels process, arguing that the Spanish proposals had been made within the framework of these discussions.[75] At Stockholm in March 2001, the then Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, intimated that the next Brussels Process talks would take place after the general election that year. It was this meeting, in July 2001, at which talks were resumed, but still there was no official mention of a discussion of joint sovereignty, only the sovereignty issue. The Government still spoke in rather general terms about discussions that included sovereignty, shared aims, mutually beneficial co-operation and a desire to end the long-running sovereignty dispute, skirting round direct questions about joint sovereignty. For example, at the press conference following the ministerial meeting of the Brussels Process on 20 November 2001, Jack Straw and Josep Pique said:

    We discussed the full range of issues set out in the November 1984 Brussels Communiqué. We did not want to draw conclusions today. Our aim is to conclude a comprehensive agreement by the summer of next year. This overall agreement will cover all outstanding issues, including those of co-operation and sovereignty.

  Parliamentary questioning on the subject of joint sovereignty offered no further clarification. On 14 January 2002 the Foreign Secretary told the House of Commons that no agreement to share sovereignty had been reached.

        Mr Michael Ancram (Devizes) (by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the Spanish Government's claim to have reached an agreement with Britain to share sovereignty over Gibraltar.

        The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr Jack Straw): No agreement has been reached with the Spanish Government, and the Spanish Government have made no such claim.[76]

  Further parliamentary questioning was less categorical but did not concede that there had been any discussion of joint sovereignty:

1.       February 2002

        Lord Waddington asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they still intend to offer Spain joint sovereignty over Gibraltar.

        The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Amos): My Lords, the Government resumed talks with Spain in July 2001 in accordance with the terms of the Brussels communiqué issued in November 1984. At the most recent round of talks under the Brussels process, which took place in London yesterday, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary and the Spanish Foreign Minister reaffirmed their common aim of concluding a comprehensive agreement before the summer, covering all outstanding issues, including co-operation and sovereignty. A copy of the joint communiqué issued after that meeting has been placed in the Libraries of both Houses.[77]

    [. . .]

    Baroness Amos: My Lords, our intention is to work to resolve all the differences between the United Kingdom and Spain over Gibraltar. We aim to do four things: preserve Gibraltar's way of life; establish greater self-government in Gibraltar; deliver practical benefits, including a stronger economy and an end to problems such as border delays; and end the dispute with Spain through lasting agreement on issues such as sovereignty.[78]


        Bob Russell: To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if Spain has identified to him the practical benefits to Gibraltar of proposals on joint sovereignty.

        Peter Hain: At the Brussels process meeting in London on 4 February, my Rt Hon Friend the Foreign Secretary and the Spanish Foreign Minister confirmed their shared aim of overcoming all differences over Gibraltar, including issues of mutually beneficial co-operation, and sovereignty. I refer my Hon Friend to the copy of the joint communiqué from the 4 February meeting that was placed in the Library.[79]

2.       March 2002

        Mr Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): In 1997, the Prime Minister said:

"we will never consent to any arrangement that goes against the freely expressed wishes of the people of Gibraltar."—[Official Report, 16 July 1997; Vol 298, c 388.]

        Given that 80 per cent of the population turned out on Monday to oppose his plans for joint sovereignty, does he now stand by every word of that statement?

        The Prime Minister: I do stand by it and of course we have not put proposals to people in Gibraltar yet. When we do put those proposals—[Interruption.] Well, that is the process that we have agreed. We have agreed that there should be a process under which we discuss with the Spanish Government certain proposals. When those proposals are agreed, they will be put to people in Gibraltar. Of course, people in Gibraltar will have the final say, as I have always indicated.[80]

[81]  In reply to a question in the Lords asking the Minister if she believed "believe that the idea of a joint sovereignty between Britain and Spain a very positive suggestion for the future?" Baroness Symons said:

    I do not want to anticipate what will emerge from the discussions which my right honourable friends are having with their Spanish counterparts, but obviously the issue of joint sovereignty is likely to be one that has taken up a good deal of time in discussion. Whether it emerges in the final proposals, we shall have to wait and see.[82]

  An official discussion of Anglo-Spanish attempts to reach an agreement on joint or shared sovereignty did not emerge (as far as I can tell) until around mid-2002, during an adjournment debate on Gibraltar. The then Minister for Europe, Peter Hain, said:

    We never thought that this was going to be easy, and it has not been. Serious differences remain between us. With regard to the longevity of any agreement to share sovereignty, we insist that it must be certain and enduring; it cannot be a slippery slope to full Spanish sovereignty. We also insist that the military facilities in Gibraltar must remain under British control. However, the most important consideration is the role of the Gibraltarians; we insist that they—rather than Spain or the British Government or anyone else—must decide whether to accept any agreement on sovereignty.[83]

  In July 2002 the joint sovereignty aim was confirmed by the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, who told the Commons:

    After 12 months of negotiation, we and Spain are in broad agreement on many of the principles that should underpin a lasting settlement. They include the principles that Britain and Spain should share sovereignty over Gibraltar—[Hon Members: "Sell-out!"]—including the disputed territory of the isthmus; that Gibraltar should have more internal self-government—[Hon. Members: "Sell-out!"]—that Gibraltar should retain its British traditions, customs and way of life; that Gibraltarians should retain the right to British nationality, and should gain the right to Spanish nationality as well—[Hon Members: "Surrender!"]—that Gibraltar should retain its institutions—its Government, House of Assembly, courts and police service; and that Gibraltar could, if it chose, participate fully in the European Union single market and other EU arrangements.

    [. . .]

    We and Spain have not yet resolved all differences. In respect of the duration of co-sovereignty, we must have a permanent settlement. Co-sovereignty cannot be just a stepping stone to full Spanish sovereignty, however long delayed. I know and understand that Spain has a long-standing historical aspiration to regain full sovereignty one day, but any agreement between us and Spain must be permanent. Gibraltar must have certainty. As for the British military facilities, we have made it clear that our current arrangements should continue.[84]

  UK and Spanish press reports on joint sovereignty were more revealing at an earlier stage, although UK press `intelligence' might well have come from the Spanish press and in particular the Gibraltar press and Government, which had long suspected that a joint sovereignty `deal' was an aim of the Brussels Process negotiations. As early as November 2001 the Financial Times reported:

    Britain is willing to consider a joint sovereignty arrangement with Spain for Gibraltar as part of efforts to achieve a breakthrough over the status of the colony that has long soured relations between London and Madrid.

    "If Spain wants to have an office and fly a flag on Gibraltar, we will look at that," a senior British official said yesterday.

    The disclosure came before talks today between Jack Straw, foreign secretary, and Josep Pique, his Spanish counterpart, aimed at delivering a new constitutional settlement for Gibraltar.

    [. . .]

    Britain has resisted ceding any sovereignty, but Tony Blair is determined to resolve the dispute by the end of next year. The prime minister is concerned that it is overshadowing his otherwise productive working relationship with Jose Maria Aznar, his Spanish counterpart.[85]

  In December 2001, the FT reported:

    The people of Gibraltar, that British imperial relic at the far end of Europe, are coming to terms with something they have dreaded for years—the prospect of being asked to fly the flag of Spain alongside the Union flag.

    For the first time in nearly 300 years of British control, London is proposing to make some concessions towards Spanish sovereignty claims.

    [. . .]

    The spur to end the niggling dispute between Britain and Spain came mainly from the other 13 European Union partners, fed up with the way this dot on the map gets in the way of EU initiatives. The UK last made a big push to break the impasse 14 years ago, doing a deal to share Gibraltar's airport. But the Gibraltarians, opposed to even a symbolic official Spanish presence, blocked it.

    They mostly feel the same about Spain's ideas for interim joint sovereignty, which Britain avoided discussing until now.[86]

  By January 2002, while the Government was still insisting that no formula for sovereignty had yet been agreed and that the two countries were aiming for a "joint declaration", the press was reporting a deal on joint sovereignty

    BRITAIN plans to end Gibraltar's 298-year-old colonial status by signing a historic agreement with Spain to share sovereignty, the Foreign Office said yesterday. But residents of the rock must endorse it in a referendum.

    Spanish officials confirmed that the deal would be struck late this summer after 18 years of Anglo-Spanish talks on the future of Gibraltar.[87]


    Britain and Spain are talking of joint sovereignty. Gibraltarians are twitchy

    WHEN two friends have been involved in a long tug-of-war, why not agree to share? That could be the future for Gibraltar, a tiny British colony on the southern tip of Spain. The British and Spanish governments agreed last autumn to reach a deal about it by this summer. The likeliest result—though the British foreign office frantically denies press reports that such a deal is all but done already—would be an arrangement for the two countries, indefinitely, to administer the territory jointly under both flags.[88]

  Andrew Mackinlay pointed out in the debate on Gibraltar on 31 January 2002:

    The Spanish daily, El Pais, has recently reported that there is to be an unlimited period of co-sovereignty. That flies in the face of what the Government have said, and of what the Foreign Secretary has been publicly telling the House as recently as 14 January. He said, as my Hon Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) mentioned, that no agreement had been reached with the Spanish Government and that that Government have made no such claims. The dispute is not, as a recent article in The Observer argued, as anachronistic as the Schleswig-Holstein question; it is a straightforward one about a people's right to self-determination.[89]

  Mr Hain dismissed these reports as speculation.[90]

  The press seem to have been confused, as was Parliament, about the Government's stated plans for a "joint declaration" and how this related to "joint sovereignty". In the debate on Gibraltar on 31 January 2002, Richard Spring asked: "We need to know whether the joint declaration speaks of joint sovereignty or whether the Minister is prepared to rule that out categorically".[91] The Financial Times's account of the debate assumed that the joint declaration would contain a proposal for joint sovereignty, although Mr Hain did not actually spell this out:

    The Conservatives attacked the plan as proof that the government had already agreed a joint sovereignty arrangement with Spain on Gibraltar.

    [. . .]

    Peter Hain, minister for Europe, told a Commons debate that Britain and Spain would issue a joint declaration on Gibraltar if Mr Caruana continued to absent himself from the negotiations. The declaration, due in the summer, is expected to set out a joint sovereignty arrangement.[92]

  The FT again referred to a joint sovereignty deal in its report on the Straw/Pique meeting on 4 February 2002, although this had not been mentioned in the Foreign Secretary's account of the meeting:

    The British and Spanish ministers said they had made "good progress" in yesterday's discussions and aimed to conclude a comprehensive agreement before the summer covering "all outstanding issues, including co-operation and sovereignty".

    The talks are expected to lead to proposals for a joint sovereignty agreement between Britain and Spain over Gibraltar. Mr Straw said the government would not renege on its pledge to put any agreement to a referendum in the colony.[93]

  In May 2002 the FT was reporting on the joint sovereignty proposals as if they had been officially announced:

    Josep Pique and Jack Straw, foreign ministers of Spain and the UK, will meet in London today in an attempt to unblock negotiations on the future of Gibraltar.

    Talks on a co-sovereignty agreement for the British colony that is claimed by Spain have hit two stumbling blocks, according to diplomats: the future of Britain's naval base in Gibraltar and the duration of the sovereignty-sharing arrangements.[94]

  However, when the Foreign Secretary announced in the Commons on 12 July 2002 that the British and Spanish Governments were pursuing an agreement on joint sovereignty (see above), the press described the Gibraltar Government as `thunderstruck'. This is somewhat surprising, given the press speculation about a joint sovereignty plan in the UK, Spanish and Gibraltar press over several preceding months:

    GIBRALTAR REACTED with shock and disbelief to Jack Straw's announcement in the Commons yesterday that Britain was pursuing its aim of striking a joint-sovereignty deal with Spain.

    The Chief Minister, Peter Caruana, who was clearly thunderstruck by the announcement, called an emergency meeting of the Gibraltar government.[95]

International Affairs and Defence Section

House of Commons Library

30 October 2002

70   FCO website at: Back

71   HC Deb, 11 February 1999, c 469. Back

72   HC Deb, 16 February 1999, c 718-9. Back

73   HC Deb, 16 February 1999, c 752W. Back

74   HC Deb, 4 March 1999, c 877-8W. Back

75   The Government responded to the Foreign Affairs Committee's 4th Report on Gibraltar in October 1999 (Cm 4470, 1998-99) "There is no realistic prospect of the present Government of Spain agreeing to exclude sovereignty from dialogue on Gibraltar. The Government will reply to Senor Matutes's proposals at the next meeting of the Brussels Process, but when he tabled them the Foreign Secretary reiterated the British Government's commitment to respect the wishes of the people of Gibraltar as enshrined in the preamble to the 1969 Constitution". In October 2000 the Government responded similarly to the FAC's Ninth Report "Gibraltar: Follow-up" (Cm 4892, Session 1999-2000). Back

76   HC Deb, 14 January 2002, c 21. Back

77   HC Deb, 5 February 2002, c 503. Back

78   Ibid, c 505. Back

79   HC Deb, 27 February 2002, c 1310W. Back

80   HC Deb, 20 March 2002, c 300. Back

81   HC Deb, 16 April 2002, c 451. Back

82   HL Deb, 18 April 2002, c 1069. Back

83   HC Deb, 18 June 2002, c WH40. Back

84   HC Deb, 12 July 2002, c 1166-7. Back

85   FT, 20 November 2001, "UK may consider sovereignty deal in Gibraltar talks: Blair determined to end dispute with Spain over colony." Back

86   FT, 17 December 2001. Back

87   Daily Telegraph, 12 January 2002, "Britain to share Gibraltar with Spain". Back

88   Economist, 19 January 2002, "A Deal too Far? Rock-solid no more?" Back

89   HC Deb, 31 January 2002, c 173WH. Back

90   Ibid, c 177WH. Back

91   HC Deb, 31 January 2002, c 147WH. Back

92   FT, 1 February 2002. Back

93   FT, 5 February 2002. Back

94   FT, 15 May 2002. Back

95   Independent, 13 July 2002. Back

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