Gibraltar: Time to get off the fence - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

2  Brief background to the dispute

Historic background

6. Gibraltar has been under British sovereignty for over 300 years. It was captured by the UK in 1704 and was formally ceded by Spain in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. However, Spain has long disputed the UK's sovereignty over Gibraltar, arguing that the Rock should be returned as part of long-overdue decolonisation, and that the isthmus (land connecting the Rock to the mainland) had never been formally ceded, nor had any of the waters surrounding Gibraltar. At various times since the Second World War, Spain has imposed significant punitive measures on the Territory. These include closing the border between Gibraltar and Spain completely between 1969 and 1982, under General Franco.

7. Over the last 50 years,Gibraltar developed into one of the most autonomous of the UK's fourteen Overseas Territories. It adopted its first constitution in 1966, which allowed for its own legislature and government, and updated it in 2006 to transfer allgovernance responsibilities to the Government of Gibraltar, apart from foreign affairs, defence, and internal security. Our predecessor Committees have produced a number of reports with detailed historical background of Gibraltar and of the various dialogue initiatives that have taken place since the 1970s.[4]


8. In the 1970s and early 1980s, Spain was seeking to become a member of the European Community,to which the UK (and, by extension, Gibraltar)[5] already belonged.As part of preparations for this, Spain and the UK signed the Brussels Agreement in 1984. This bilateral agreement on Gibraltar acted as a precursor to normal relations between members of the EC, and also provided for discussions between the UK and Spain, on topics includingsovereignty. These talks came to be known as the Brussels Process and resulted in a series of meetings throughout the 1980s and 1990s, though without a great deal of progress. Spain made two formal proposals during the talks for integrating Gibraltar into Spain, the second of which was put forwardin 1997 by Spanish Foreign Minister Abel Matutes of the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE), who offered a "fresh attempt" to resolve the issue, including by offering an indefinite transitional period of joint sovereignty. Although the UK did not formally reject the proposal, the talks lapsed and Gibraltar endured a further period of border and maritime difficulties.


9. In 2001, the Rt HonJack Straw MP, then Foreign Secretary, announced that the UK and Spain were once again holding talks on Gibraltar. It was later confirmed that these talks included proposals for joint sovereignty over Gibraltar. The proposals were strongly resisted by Gibraltar, which had not taken part in the dialogue. In 2002 Gibraltar held a referendum asking Gibraltarians whether they would agree to shared Spanish and British sovereignty. The turnout was 87.9 per cent and nearly 99 per cent of those voting voted "no".The talks collapsed soon afterwards. Our predecessor Committee strongly opposed the talks and heavily criticised the Government both for the proposal and the less than transparent way in which it had proceeded. It said that "there was no prospect whatsoever that any agreement on the future of Gibraltar which included joint sovereignty could be made acceptable to the people of Gibraltar, and […] the outcome is likely to be the worst of all worlds-the dashing of raised expectations in Spain, and a complete loss of trust in the British Government by the people of Gibraltar".[6]


10. Following the collapse of the joint sovereignty proposal in 2002, in October 2004 Spain and the UK agreed to consult further on a new forum with an open agenda in which Gibraltar would have a voice. This resulted in a series of trilateral ministerial meetings, the first of which took place in Cordoba in 2006. That meeting resulted in the Cordoba Agreement, which addressed a number of long-standing issues, including the removal of air restrictions against Gibraltar airport; Spanish recognition of Gibraltarian dialling codes; and improved pedestrian and traffic flows at the border. It also contained an agreement on the payment of pensions to Spanish citizens who had been affected when the border between Spain and Gibraltar was closed by the General Franco government in 1969. Under EU rules, the Gibraltarian government had continued liabilities to these citizens though they had not been able to contribute to the pension scheme. As part of the Cordoba agreement, the UK took on liability for the pensions continued payment at agreed rates, ending a controversial and bitter dispute.[7]The FCO estimated in 2008 that the additional costs to be borne by the UK as a result of this agreement were £73 million, which was in addition to the ongoing costs of £49 million in future pensions payments which would have been made anyway.[8] Our predecessor committee considered that, although costly, this agreement was worthwhile as it ended challenges to Gibraltar's pension system and removed other potential liabilities for the UK.[9]

11. In subsequent trilateral meetings the agenda was extended still further, and the UK Government and Government of Gibraltar both commented favourably to our predecessor committee in 2008 on the forum and the Cordoba agreement.[10]During this period, it appears that sovereignty discussions were effectively off the table, as the UK Government had by then provided Gibraltar with a guarantee that not only would it never enter into arrangements under which the people of Gibraltar would pass under the sovereignty of another state against their wishes (as promised in the 1966 constitution preamble), but the UK would not even enter into a process of sovereignty negotiations with which Gibraltar was not content. This guarantee is known in Gibraltar as the 'double-lock'. Regardless of the UK's refusal to discuss sovereignty, relations between the UK, Gibraltar and Spain improved to such an extent during this period of dialogue that in 2009 the then Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, from the Socialist Party (PSOE),made the first visit to Gibraltar by a Spanish foreign minister in over 300 years.

12. The difficulties the current Government faces are in part a legacy of regrettable decisions made in 2001-02 to allow for joint sovereignty discussions, which raised expectations on the Spanish side. Since 2004, the Government has sought to correct this by a consistent message that no discussions will take place without the consent of the people of Gibraltar. This is the correct approach, and should be consistently re-affirmed. The 'double lock' has provided Gibraltar with security following a difficult period; this guarantee of self-determination should never be abandoned again.

4   See, for example, Foreign Affairs Committee, Fourth Report of Session 1998-99, Gibraltar, HC 413; and Foreign Affairs Committee, Eleventh Report of Session 2001-02, Gibraltar, HC 973 Back

5   Article 355(3) (ex Article 299(4)) applies the treaty to "the European territories for whose external relations a Member State is responsible", a provision which in practice only applies to Gibraltar. Back

6   Foreign Affairs Committee, Eleventh Report of Session 2001-02, Gibraltar, HC 973, para 31 Back

7   See Foreign Affairs Committee, Eleventh Report of Session 2001-02, Gibraltar, HC 973 paras 58-87 of 2002; and Foreign Affairs Committee, Seventh Report of Session 2007-08, Overseas Territories, HC 147-I paras 393-400, on the pensions 'scam' Back

8   Foreign Affairs Committee, Seventh Report of Session 2007-08, Overseas Territories, HC 147-I, para 399 Back

9   Foreign Affairs Committee, Seventh Report of Session 2007-08, Overseas Territories, HC 147-I, para 414 Back

10   Foreign Affairs Committee, Seventh Report of Session 2007-08, Overseas Territories, HC 147-I, para 387-391 Back

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