Gibraltarians to reject any joint sovereignty plan


BRITAIN: The people of Gibraltar are expected to stand firm as a rock today when they will vote on proposals for joint sovereignty, writes Jane Walker

Gibraltarians go to the polls today in a referendum on their right to decide their own sovereignty, although no one is in any doubt of the outcome. The only uncertainty is what small percentage of the 28,000 inhabitants will vote against any change in Gibraltar's status as a British overseas territory.

Virtually every available inch of this 3-sq-mile territory is festooned with Union and Gibraltar flags and posters urging citizens to vote No in response to the question: "Do you approve of the principle that Britain and Spain should share sovereignty over Gibraltar?"

Politicians have rarely had such an easy task when calling out voters. "Gibraltarians have been listening to messages from Britain and Spain for years, now it is time them to listen to what we have to say," said Mr Joseph Garcia of the Gibraltar Liberal Party.

Ever since the disputed rock was ceded to Britain in 1713 under the Treaty of Utrecht, it has been a bone of contention between London and Madrid. Spain cannot accept that the last colony in Europe is an enclave attached to its southernmost point and that the inhabitants - a cocktail of Irish, Italian, Maltese, Indian and even Spanish blood - remain loyal subjects of the British queen. They are nearly all bilingual but speak their own version of Spanglish together. Many of them, including the Chief Minister, Mr Peter Caruana, have homes across the frontier in Spain.

Unlike Hong Kong, which was leased to Britain in an agreement with a termination date, Gibraltar was declared British territory in perpetuity and would only revert to Spain if the colony changed its status. Over the last two years there has been a marked rapprochement between Britain and Spain, both of whom want to bring an end to centuries of confrontation.

A series of meetings at ministerial level resulted in the basis for an agreement to share sovereignty over the controversial enclave. However the meetings were boycotted by Mr Caruana who insisted on attending as Gibraltar's representative and not as part of the British delegation. An offer of EU subsidies of €60 million was rejected out of hand and provoked accusations of attempted bribery.

Gibraltar's constitution states that any change in sovereignty must be approved by referendum, but today's poll was convened independently by Mr Caruana and its results are not binding.

The Spanish Prime Minister, Mr José Maria Aznar, has described the consultation as "illegal and irrelevant. Spain will always strive to achieve full sovereignty over Gibraltar." An overwhelming No vote will force London and Madrid to listen to Gibraltar's views.

In the last referendum in 1967, when Gen Franco was still dictator in Spain - only 44 Gibraltarians voted in favour of a Spanish alliance. Spain retaliated by imposing a blockade which lasted 16 years.

"All it did was create a siege mentality, bringing them closer and it put back our cause by decades," said a senior Spanish diplomat.