HL Deb 18 July 2002 vol 637 cc1393-9

3.15 p.m.

Lord Blaker

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they plan further discussions on the future of Gibraltar with the Government of Spain during the parliamentary Recess.

The Minister for Trade (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, we hope to hold further discussions in the autumn.

Lord Blaker

My Lords, is it not likely that the agreement in principle by Her Majesty's Government to surrender some part of sovereignty will have persuaded the Spanish Government that their policy of bullying the Gibraltarians is producing results and will therefore make them more likely to continue with it? At the same time, is not that policy having the effect of making the Gibraltarians more resolute in resisting any surrender of sovereignty?

If Spain wants to influence the Gibraltarians in her favour, the right policy would be to woo the Gibraltarians, not to bully them. If the Government have already suggested that to the Spanish—I dare say that they have—should they not abandon their existing policies and make that point to the Spanish at every opportunity?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, as we have already discussed on a number of occasions, it is clear that Spain will have to make any deal attractive to the people of Gibraltar. As the British Government have made clear over and over again since 1969, anything that effects the sovereignty of the people of Gibraltar will be put to the people of Gibraltar in a referendum.

Of course, we reiterate to our friends in Spain that it is important that the issues that cause such irritation in Gibraltar—border delays, problems with telephone numbers and the other issues that your Lordships have discussed over many years—must be put right, if any deal is to go through.

Lord Temple-Morris

My Lords, is not my noble friend the Minister well aware that successive governments have, on various occasions, endeavoured to get agreement on this difficult matter? All too often, they have backed away because of parliamentary and other pressure. Recess or no recess, will the Government please press on with the brave efforts that they have made to reach a settlement, bearing in mind the necessary safeguards for the people of Gibraltar and the undoubted fact that a settlement is in their interests?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the Government will pursue the path to which we are now committed. I remind the House that it was a Conservative government who originally said that sovereignty could be included in such discussions.

My noble friend is right. It is in the interests of the people of Gibraltar that the Brussels process be pursued. The dispute is 300 years old, and its resolution must be in everybody's interest.

Lord Howe of Aberavon

My Lords, does the Minister recall that the original Brussels agreement—in which I declare a semi-paternal interest—which launched the process, aimed at overcoming all the differences between Spain and the United Kingdom over Gibraltar, including issues of sovereignty? It was welcomed at the time by the Chief Minister of Gibraltar and by our Prime Minister as being, in her words, very much in the interests of both Gibraltar and Spain". Does the Minister also recall that that agreement spelt out clearly the full commitment of Her Majesty's Government to honour the wishes of the people of Gibraltar? Has not the present regrettable deadlock arisen largely because of the serious imbalance in the Government's approach to the negotiations? They are much too willing to accommodate the requirements of the Spanish Government and much too willing to be heedless of the need for Spain—even more than Britain—to gain and maintain the confidence of the people of Gibraltar.

Finally, if the negotiations are to be resumed—as I would hope, but only after the dust has settled a little—is it not essential that that should be on the basis of proven Spanish willingness, as promised in the original 1984 agreement, to take the early action necessary to allow effective air communications and free movement of persons, vehicles and goods between Gibraltar and Spain?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, has an excellent memory. He is absolutely right because I have in front of me the text of the Brussels communiqué. He also has the great integrity to use his memory, which is a point that might be reflected on by some of his honourable friends in another place.

The noble and learned Lord went on to talk about a serious imbalance. From the beginning of our discussions on this issue, I have very much regretted the absence of Mr Caruana from them. He was invited to join the discussions and that invitation remains open to him. I very much hope that, on reflection, he will decide that his proper place is at the negotiating table.

However, I should remind noble Lords that in the Statement made last week by my right honourable friend Mr Straw in another place, he pointed out that not only had the issue of shared sovereignty been discussed, but also that Gibraltar should have more internal self-government; that Gibraltar should retain its British traditions, customs and way of life; that Gibraltarians should retain the right to British nationality; that it should be free to retain its institutions and that it should be able to participate fully in the EU single market. I do not think that that reflects an imbalance in the position. That reflects a truly balanced position and one that has at its heart the interests of the people of Gibraltar.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords—

Lord Hoyle

My Lords—

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, there is plenty of time for all noble Lords to speak.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, is the Minister aware that noble Lords on these Benches broadly support the efforts being made by the Government with Spain over the question of Gibraltar? We broadly support the effort to carry forward with Spain the original Brussels process. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, has just mentioned that he was a distinguished member of the government who initiated that process. Does the Minister agree that, since we already share sovereignty with Spain and others in the European Union and in NATO, there is no issue of principle over Britain sharing sovereignty with Spain over Gibraltar? Indeed, it would be in the interests of the people of Gibraltar, as well as of those of Britain, Spain and the European Union in general, if such a sharing of sovereignty, together with a more general package, could be worked out. Will the Government use the parliamentary Recess to make major efforts to persuade the people of Gibraltar of the advantages of the Brussels process and, as has been mentioned already, to persuade the Spaniards to be a good deal more tactful in their approach to the people of Gibraltar?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am aware of the position of the Liberal Democrat Party on this matter. It is to be congratulated on the remarkable consistency of its support on this issue, which was also reflected by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe.

With regard to the point of principle, I shall say this. The point of principle with regard to shared sovereignty is that it must be a matter for a referendum of the people of Gibraltar. The other points mentioned by the noble Lord are not the crucial issues in this instance. What is crucial is that any change in the sovereignty of Gibraltar must be a matter for decision by the people of Gibraltar.

We have also said that any agreement reached must be permanent and that existing military arrangements would have to continue. Of course, as noble Lords would expect, we shall use the Summer Recess to continue to do all we can to further the possibility of reaching an agreement that would be in the interests of the people of Gibraltar.

Lord Hoyle

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that there is a terrible smell of hypocrisy in the air in relation to Spain's claim for sovereignty over Gibraltar, given that Spain has sent warships, fighters, helicopters and special forces to remove six Moroccan soldiers from an uninhabited island which Morocco claims as its territory?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I see that a number of noble Lords enjoyed that question. However, as a spokesman for the Government, let me say that we see this issue as one that should be resolved peacefully and quickly. We have good relations with both Spain and Morocco and we look to them to sort out their differences over the island of Parsley.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, first, does the noble Baroness agree that there is more than one way to resolve the issue of sovereignty? One of those ways would be for Spain to accept British sovereignty, as she did when the Treaty of Utrecht was signed. Secondly, can the noble Baroness explain in exactly which ways the Spanish wish to interfere in Gibraltar, for if they do not wish to do so, then surely they would not wish to exert even joint sovereignty?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, of course there is more than one way of solving the question of sovereignty. Theoretically it is possible that Spain might cede its claim, but as the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, knows full well, that is not the real world. Spain has been clear and unequivocal on the point; it is not going to resile from its claim. We shall not resile from our position; namely, anything negotiated that affects sovereignty must be put before the people of Gibraltar. That is our red line, as indeed is the red line that I spoke of in an earlier response; that is, any solution must be a permanent one and the existing military arrangements would have to continue.

The noble Lord has asked why the Spanish would want to interfere. The word "interference" is very loaded, but I hope that Spain would want to cooperate in making the lives of the people of Gibraltar very much better than they are today—in dealing with the problems of border delays, in dealing with the questions over aviation and in dealing with the issue of telephone numbers. In those ways Spain could make a real difference.

The Earl of Sandwich

My Lords, can the noble Baroness confirm that the Spanish Government made a comparison between Gibraltar with Hong Kong? Does she agree that that was somewhat far-fetched and have the Government made any response?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I believe that the comparison is far-fetched. A number of analogies have been drawn. A moment ago my noble friend Lord Hoyle referred to the dispute over the island of Parsley and I refer to the Spanish enclaves in Morocco. The historical context of all those is very different, as is the legal position. I do not believe that it helps any of the parties involved in trying to resolve the issue to make such unhelpful comparisons.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, the noble Baroness referred to the difficulties being experienced by the people of Gibraltar, such as the issue over telephone numbers. Can she say why it has not been possible for Her Majesty's Government, as a member of the European Union representing Gibraltar—which I believe has a standing in the Union—to press for Spain to behave as it should towards another member? Why is it necessary to consider issues of sovereignty before we consider using our position within the European Union to persuade Spain to do what it should and to stop doing what she should not?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the fact is that we have tried to use every avenue possible in order to resolve the issue. It has been suggested that we take some of these issues to the international courts. But in order to reach any kind of resolution through such multi-lateral fora, we would have to have a willing partner in Spain. The fact is—I refer back to what the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, said—we have not had a willing partner in Spain.

What we do have is the helpful mechanism negotiated by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, during his period in office as Foreign Secretary; namely, the Brussels process. That is the way in which Britain and Spain have decided to try to resolve this issue. So I agree with the noble Baroness: it is a pity that we cannot use to better advantage the European Union. We have tried to do so, but it is not possible. We are using the mechanisms open to us.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, given that there is in place a procedure for negotiation and given the real difficulties of striking poses on the issue, does the Minister accept that we on these Benches strongly support the answers that she has given and believe that there is no way forward except by pursuing an understanding negotiation between the two sides, even though that may take quite a while?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her support. In answering I should say that I think it a pity that more of those who do understand the real position in relation to Gibraltar do not have the courage demonstrated by the noble Baroness to state that as unequivocally as she has done.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, the original Brussels negotiations initiated by my noble and learned friend Lord Howe were a sensible and ingenious mechanism. Why have things got into such a mess under the present Government? Everyone recognises that the handling has been a bit deficient. Will the present agreement in principle become null and void if and when the people of Gibraltar vole it down, or will it stay on ice?

Following on the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, I cannot resist asking the noble Baroness whether she sees any contradiction between the continuous, long-term insistence on the part of Spain on total sovereignty and in the meantime her use of the bullying tactics referred to by my noble friend Lord Blaker, and the rather zealous protection of the sovereign enclaves of Spain in Morocco.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I do not accept the noble Lord's premise that the handling of this matter has been "a bit deficient". There were 13 years of Conservative government after the agreement in 1984. I point out to the noble Lord that we have got further in one year of negotiation than the party opposite did in the 13 years during which the process was available.

As I have explained previously, we have made it absolutely clear that no deal is better than a bad deal. I reiterate that to your Lordships. If we are not able to negotiate a deal which we believe will be in the interests of the people of Gibraltar, we shall haw no hesitation in saying so. We are engaged in an honest endeavour and enterprise to make their lives better. If we are not able to do so, it will not be for want of trying.