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Volume 597: debated on Wednesday 17 February 1999

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3.14 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask Her Majesty's Government a Question of which I have given private notice.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what is their policy in the light of developments relating to Gibraltar.

My Lords, before my noble friend Lady Symons answers the noble Lord's Private Notice Question, perhaps I may remind the House that the Companion states:

"Private notice questions are taken immediately after starred questions, and should not be made the occasion for immediate debate.
Proceedings on private notice questions follow the rules for starred questions … In particular, supplementary questions should be short and confined to not more than two points. Comment should be avoided".

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office
(Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, the Spanish authorities have been angered by an agreement reached on 3rd February between the Chief Minister of Gibraltar and local fishermen about fishing in British waters around Gibraltar. Although this agreement builds on an earlier ministerial understanding, the Spanish introduced unjustifiably long delays at the border crossing. We protested to the Spanish Foreign Minister and made representations in Brussels. The delays have since lessened. The Foreign Secretary and a Spanish Foreign Minister will meet on 21st February.

Her Majesty's Government regret the use of border controls as a policy lever and will continue to defend Gibraltar's legitimate rights with determination. The keystone of our policy remains the 1969 commitment, which I quote:
"We will never enter into arrangements under which the people of Gibraltar would pass under the sovereignty of another state against their freely and democratically expressed wishes".

My Lords, will the Minister go one step further and take this opportunity to condemn unreservedly Spain's threats to refuse to recognise Gibraltar's driving licences, which is in direct contravention of the European law, and also Spain's threat to ban civil flights to and from Gibraltar? Will the Minister also take this opportunity to concur with the words of the former Foreign Secretary, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who said:

"The idea for joint sovereignty is a non-starter. The simple point is that Gibraltar people want to remain British citizens and that is the end of the matter"?

My Lords, on the issue of sovereignty, I do not believe that I could be any clearer than repeating the 1969 position which I did for the record in my main Answer. As regards the driving licences, there is no doubt that Gibraltar licences are valid under EU law. EU licences must be recognised by other member states under the second EU driving licence directive. Further, on the question of overflights, Senor Matutes told the Foreign Secretary that he had not taken a decision to ban overflights to and from Gibraltar. It would be extraordinary and unprecedented for an EU member state to impose an overflight ban on civil aircraft of a European partner.

The noble Lord asked me to condemn such action. However, the sensible course of action is to go ahead with the meeting on 21st February and to create the right atmosphere in which we will talk to Senor Matutes about such matters, and not to inflame the position in the way that the noble Lord invites me to do.

My Lords, does the Minister understand that we on these Benches fully accept and underline the status of the pledge made to the people of Gibraltar? Does she agree that it is not wise to fan the flames of a dispute in the irresponsible way that has happened in particular in another place, given the fact that there are tens of thousands of British citizens resident in Spain who wish to see the best possible relationship between our countries? We are most grateful for what the Minister said about the commitment made by the Spanish Foreign Minister.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her very sensible remarks, in contrast to those made by the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan. It is of course sensible that we make our position clear on the matter. Indeed, the Foreign Secretary has done so; he did so with Senor Matutes on 11 th February. Our Ambassador in Madrid also made our position clear, as has our permanent representative, Sir Stephen Wall, in Brussels. The Foreign Secretary has also spoken to Mr. Caruana. It is worth noting that Mr. Caruana has thanked the Foreign Secretary for the stand that he has taken. Now we must look forward to the meeting in Brussels.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for her statement, which I am sure will reassure the citizens of Gibraltar. However, have the Government given some thought to the suggestion that I made previously that we should look at the model of the United States and consider elections by Gibraltarians of non-voting representatives to this Parliament? Surely that would be the clearest possible signal to the Spaniards that this Government, or any future government, will never give way. It is only when the Spanish Government really understand that that they will reduce the pressures which they are now applying.

My Lords, I do not believe that the Spanish Government can have one iota of doubt about where the British Government stand on Gibraltar. We shall not compromise over sovereignty provided that the people of Gibraltar freely and constitutionally continue to express their wishes about their status. To turn to the point about models from elsewhere, these issues can, of course, be discussed informally with Gibraltar but I do not wish to say anything to the noble Lord that in any way compromised the clear statement of policy that I have made to the House on this point.

My Lords, does not the noble Baroness agree that the recent problems over border controls—I refer to queues and delays—are part of an ongoing pattern of harassment which has been carried out against the people of Gibraltar and visitors to Gibraltar? Will she assure us that she will convey to the Foreign Secretary the wish of many of us who are friends and supporters of Gibraltar that he should convey to his counterpart, Senor Matutes, that a charm offensive on the part of the Spaniards would be far more effective in winning the hearts and minds of the people of Gibraltar than their current policies?

My Lords, it is important to note that the border closure was effected on 29th and 30th January by fishermen in connection with the original dispute. Since then we have, of course, complained to the Spanish Government about border delays. I should, however, tell the House that since we made these complaints the average length of delay on the border has dropped from some six hours to one hour. We still believe that such a delay is unacceptable. We do not believe it is consistent with the light customs checks for which EU obligations provide. That is why my right honourable friend will meet his counterpart this weekend. As to a charm offensive, I agree with the noble Baroness: I hardly think that the way in which the Spanish Government are behaving at the moment is likely to win the hearts and minds of the people of Gibraltar.