Saturday, February 12, 2005

Frontier flow, Telecoms and Air Links targetted for progress

Malaga Tripartite ‘Goodwill’ talks - Caruana admits process is “difficult and complicated”

F Oliva reports from Malaga

A technical working group to look into the ways in which the use of the Gibraltar airport can benefit the entire region, and a commitment by Spain to improve traffic flow at the frontier and resolve local telecommunications difficulties, were the main results of yesterday’s meeting of the new Anglo-Spanish-Gibraltar forum for dialogue in Malaga.

Speaking to a large press contingent that had gathered at the Sub-Delegacion del Gobierno in Malaga, Spain’s director general for Europe and North America Jose Pons who briefed the press on the agreements that had been reached, also announced that a meeting will be held in Madrid, “in the next few days” between telecommunications regulators from both sides to find a solution to local telephony problems.

Meanwhile a meeting of the Comision Mixta of the Gibraltar Government and the Campo Mancomunidad will be held next week.

For his part Mr Caruana said that the three sides wanted to achieve “good neighbourly relations and cross-frontier cooperation for the mutual benefit of Gibraltar and the Campo.” But, he said, in a process such as this no one should expect “progress and agreements after every working meeting.”

Mr Caruana emphasized that the question of the airport was “a complicated and difficult” matter because “Spain will not want to weaken its position on the sovereignty issue and neither will the Gibraltar or British Governments.” He said it was a question of saving the fundamental political position of each side and doing everything that is possible, in the space that is left “so that what we do is for the economic and social benefit of all the sides, but there is no easy or overnight solution.” Mr Caruana added:

“If we do not find a solution it will be because it is not possible to balance the political defence with the desire for a greater use of the airport.”

Responding to questions the Chief Minister said this was an open agenda process where each side could raise whatever issue it wished including sovereignty, but stated that besides the political position of each side, the focus of the process was to improve cross-border relations on the basis of mutual cooperation. He said evidence of this openness had been Spain’s raising of the Sceptre submarine issue given the coincidence of the dates and that this suited the Spanish side. Mr Caruana said the process that started yesterday will take its time because the Gibraltar question was a problem that had existed for a long time. In answer to more questions he rejected any suggestion of attaching “the pressure of a timescale” to any possible progress, but acknowledged that all sides had “a special interest and enthusiasm” to try and achieve results in good faith, which he said the three sides shared. He also expressed support for the possibility of holding one of the meetings of the forum in Gibraltar and said he would welcome the British and Spanish representatives to the Rock.

It was Sr Pons who braved the press on behalf of the three sides to inform the press of the nature of the agreements reached. The British representative Dominic Chilcott left soon after the meeting to catch a plane back to London. There was no written statement although the indications earlier in the day were that one would materialise, and the two politicians spoke to the press in a chaotic impromptu news conference in one of the corridors of the impressive building.

Sr Pons said:

“This is the first meeting of the forum for dialogue that has been set up. Today we have set a process in motion that we hope will have continuity. The meeting has been carried out in a cordial and constructive atmosphere. As regards the airport we have explored formulae so that the use of the Gibraltar airport is beneficial to the entire region. We have examined the different models that exist and could be applied to the Gibraltar case. The most important aspect is that we have decided to set up a technical working group to look into the matter that will produce a report for the next meeting of the forum. We have discussed the repairs of nuclear submarines in Gibraltar and agree that given the sensitivities of the issue we need to transmit a message of calmness to the population of the area. The Spanish Government has asked Britain to stop repairs to the nuclear components of these submarines in Gibraltar and they have confirmed that the nuclear repairs carried out to the Tireless some years ago was an exceptional occurrence. We have asked Britain to provide a written assurance of this to confirm the statement made by the former Spanish Foreign Secretary Josep Pique, after talks with his counterpart Robin Cook, when the Tireless left Gibraltar. We have also discussed the issue of the movement of vehicles and persons, into and out of Gibraltar and we have agreed to facilitate the flow as long as it is possible and according to legal requirements and safety considerations. The Spanish Government has given a commitment to organise a top level meeting within our administration with the participation of the heads of all the services to study and put into effect whatever measures are necessary for this. This will take place in the next few weeks. We have also discussed the issue of telecommunications and have agreed to organise a top level meeting in Madrid of affected telephony regulators and experts in the next few days to find a solution to Gibraltar’s current telecommunications problem. We will have further meetings of the forum because we want this process to have continuity but we have not fixed a date for the next meeting.”

Submarine Controversy

Nuclear submarines featured heavily in the discussions that took place in Malaga. Bombarded by questions from the Spanish press on the matter, the Chief Minister said that all sides had agreed that the HMS Sceptre case was not comparable to the Tireless crisis of 2000. Mr Caruana was at pains to explain the differences between the two and said that on this occasion there had been no repairs to any nuclear components in the vessel as opposed to the previous occasion, a fact that had been confirmed in the Spanish parliament by Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos. Mr Caruana said he does not agree that Gibraltar should be a base for nuclear repairs, a view that had been made known to the British Government.

Mr Caruana stated that the Spanish Government does not oppose simple nuclear submarine visits but the repairs to any nuclear component, and that London and Madrid will continue to discuss the issue among themselves. As regards the suggestion of Spain receiving written assurances from Britain in this respect, Mr Caruana said Spain was free to ask Britain what it considers appropriate, stating that the position between Gibraltar and Britain was clear and that if Spain wanted clarification on these issues, it was fine. The Chief Minister said:

“As far as we are concerned, Gibraltar is a military base that is equipped to receive recreational and operational visits by nuclear submarines. We do not agree that Gibraltar should be used for repairs to nuclear systems, but as regards visits and repairs to non-nuclear systems, not only do we not oppose such activities but these do not worry us. The main consideration is one of safety and whether there is a threat or danger to the population on either side. That is a concern that is shared by the Governments on both sides and the fact is that no-one wants to put the public health and safety of our communities at risk.”

Mr Caruana also reminded the Spanish press about the visit to several Spanish ports of nuclear submarines and that it had never been the policy of any Spanish Government to ban these visits in Spain, arguing that Gibraltar should not be the only exception of this.

* The Foreign Office yesterday said that no date has been fixed for the next tripartite talks at ministerial level or at technical level. However it confirmed that the airport, the issue of submarine visits, border queues and telecommunications were discussed. Officials are also to consider ways in which the border can be sped up. On submarine visits the F&CO insists this is a matter for the Ministry of Defence.

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