Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Estrella points to scope for Airport Pact

PSOE MP set to address Casino Calpe

Dominique Searle interviews Rafael Estrella

If diplomats and officials can devise a creative formula to allow joint use of the Gibraltar airport while preserving the status quo: that formula will imply that Spain, while not recognising the “annexation of the isthmus”, accepts that the airport is under British-Gibraltarian effective control.

That is the view expressed by Rafael Estrella, spokesman of the PSOE in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Congreso de los Diputados.

Sr Estrella reviews the progress of the recent process and points to high-level talks planned on the question of the frontier itself.

You are visiting Gibraltar and the Campo. What is the purpose of your visit? Who do you expect to meet?

This is a private visit at the invitation of Casino Calpe but I am aware it has a political significance. Almost three years ago, Casino Calpe also offered me the opportunity to address a distinguished audience and to enjoy a wonderful evening in which I could deliver my thoughts and ideas about our differences and our common endeavours.

I am glad and very honoured at the fact that the Board of Casino Calpe is willing to repeat that experience. Last time, I was in opposition, I am now the spokesman of the governing Party in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Congreso de los Diputados and a new initiative of dialogue based upon the principles I advocated in an article (“Rethinking Gibraltar and Spain: An Opportunity for Courage”, Gibraltar Chronicle, 29-1-1999 ) has now been put into motion.

I will be received by Chief Minister Peter Caruana and will also meet a broad array of influential persons of the Gibraltar society whose views are for me of the utmost interest.

The process of dialogue that began in the Autumn has seen your Government and Moratinos come under fire from Sr Rajoy and the Partido Popular. Is that a problem?

The process of dialogue is not coming out of the blue. The elements of this approach have already been advanced in the past, from the Brussels Declaration to the initiatives taken with Pique and even Matutes. Pretending ignorance of what is written history would be unacceptable. The new element which makes this viable is the creation of mutual trust and respect in a honest dialogue between Spain and Gibraltar, as an indispensable dimension of the overall relationship between Spain and Britain on Gibraltar.

As Mr Caruana has boldly emphasized, there is no change in the fundamentals of the Spanish positions concerning sovereignty. The bizarre attitude of the Popular Party affirming there is a veto right on sovereignty - this Mr Caruana denies - is therefore irresponsible and can only be attributed to their broader political strategy. This makes things more difficult for the Spanish Government, but I am sure it will not alter its determination. I expect the Popular Party will finally adopt a loyal and constructive attitude like PSOE did in the past, thus preserving the question of Gibraltar from the internal political confrontation.

How well is the process going and how would you describe 'well’ from a Spanish perspective?

Let’s allow your readers to judge from the facts. The dialogue forum was formally considered for the first time at the meeting between Moratinos and Straw – who consulted Mr. Caruana - on October the 27th. In less than two months the forum was established after a trilateral meeting. Since then, in less than a hundred days, besides a formal meeting at Malaga, there have been technical meetings on pensions and phone lines and a joint technical group will visit other airports to study formulas on a joint use of the Gibraltar airport. It is also scheduled to hold a high level meeting on the ‘gate’.

Meanwhile, a joint Commission for co-operation between Gibraltar and the Campo has been established. All these dimension of the dialogue have yet to deliver concrete results, progress will be easier in some aspects than in others, there will appear misunderstandings that we will have to overcome, but there is no doubt we are in the right track and that there is a completely new climate. I agree with Mr. Caruana’s view that this is an irreversible process.

Do you share the apparent optimism for an Airport arrangement?

For obvious reasons, this is one of the more complicated issues. The fact that this time the driving force have been the Gibraltar authorities makes me feel confident that there will be enough critical mass to devise a creative formula to allow joint use while preserving the status quo: that formula will imply, in my judgement, that Spain, while not recognizing the annexation of the isthmus, accepts that the airport is under British-Gibraltarian effective control.

How do you see the process unfolding and will it reach a stage where Mr Caruana is sitting around the table with Mr Straw and Sr Moratinos? When is that likely?

Why not? That scenario was repeatedly offered by Sr Matutes and demanded once and again by Sr Piqué be it alone or jointly with Mr Straw. Both Spanish Ministers were aware of how critically needed for progress was having the Gibraltar voice on the table. We are moving in that direction. When the time is ripe for that to happen it would be cynical to express outrage or, should I say, even raise an eyebrow in surprise. But people must know that we are not talking now about a photo opportunity but, far beyond, when that happens we will have a visible evidence of an effective progress in the goals we have agreed upon.

Is normalisation of relations a sufficient goal in itself or is an early engagement over the historic question inevitable for Spain?

This totally new demarche (step in political affairs) in our relations is based on transparency and mutual loyalty and respect. There is neither ‘done deal’ nor ‘hidden agenda’. It is clear from the outset, since late October, that for Spain this co-operation is in the context of the goals of Spanish claims on sovereignty. Our British friends have been telling us for years to court the Gibraltarians, to “win their souls and minds”. No Spanish Government learnt how to do that -perhaps we did not receive the appropriate ‘tune’ from Gibraltar either. We are not courting, we are talking to and treating the Gibraltar people and their authorities with the due respect and dignity. And now we have all decided to co-operate in all areas of mutual interest.

How do you gauge Spanish public opinion on this issue generally? Are people really bothered about Gibraltar or only when it is waved before them by politicians?

I think there are mixed feelings. Most people would say they don’t think Gibraltar –and sovereignty - is a priority of our foreign policy, but most people would also say they believe that Spain should recover sovereignty on Gibraltar. But the average citizen dislikes confrontation. I am therefore convinced that once the process begins to produce practical results with impact on the daily life both sides of the gate, it will get wide sympathy. That makes visibility an important dimension of the process. Something is wrong in the communication policy when Spaniards ignore that a year ago, on March 11, one of the first solidarity messages arrived from the Gibraltar Government.

What would you like to see from the Gibraltar Government in this process? And... From the people themselves?

I now see a high degree of maturity in addressing the real challenges faced by the people of Gibraltar. I have been extremely critical with what I considered was a narrow and sovereignty-dominated attitude of the Gibraltar –and of the Spanish- authorities. A vision that, in my view, was neglecting the present and future challenges of Gibraltar. I profoundly deplored and criticised, though respected and, should I say, expected, the decision to derail the co-sovereignty process. Without changing my mind, I now believe it gave the Gibraltar Government and Mr Caruana enhanced legitimacy and credibility to engage in this dialogue process with what seems likely an unchallengeable determination and maturity. That’s what I want.

Hoon was in Madrid (last Thursday) and Britain is cutting down its resources in Gibraltar. Has Britain already secured its 'Red Line' around a British Base as was its aim in the Joint-Sovereignty talks or is that matter still to be settled as far as Spain is concerned?

Hoon and Bono share a broad common agenda –NATO, European Defence, armaments policy. Gibraltar is now in the very far end of that agenda. A British decision to cut down resources or privatise services does not seems likely to alter British known position on the base nor the view regarding its operational control and capacity. I don’t see the base having been addressed at this forum or bilaterally in the near future.

Spanish Governments seem to have a problem with the reality of Defence issues. Nuclear Submarines have been stopping off at Rota and Gibraltar for years but if they are pictured in the press there is a storm in a teacup. How do you see this duplicity being resolved within the broad picture of relations with the UK and USA?

Safety is the word, not propeller systems or flags. But for Aznar, who made frivolous jokes about a yellow submarine, the Tireless was perceived both sides of the gate as being exposed to a tsunami. We now react in the face of a medium size wave accordingly to these fears.

Spanish and Gibraltar authorities share the view that Gibraltar does not fulfil the safety requirements to perform major repairs in nuclear submarines. That was also acknowledged by Robin Cook and a declaration of intentions excluding these repairs will hopefully be put now in written by the British Government. This, together with the appropriate functioning of the system of information on arrival of submarines and the related measures on radiological control on the Spanish side are the basic requirements for the people in Gibraltar and the Campo to feel their safety guaranteed.

Can Spain bring any initiatives to the relationship with Gibraltar – Cultural or Educational for example – that are ultimately innocent?

Innocent does not just relate to intention but, above all, depends on perception. The new climate must raise the threshold of what we consider normal and, for example, favour further educational and cultural relations. I know in Gibraltar there is a live cultural and artistic activity whose natural projection and market is Spain; the same applies for Gibraltar students coming to Spanish universities. But my personal view is that we should be more ambitious. Let me think aloud. What would be the reaction if the Gibraltar authorities offered a suitable building to establish a Spanish House in Gibraltar under –maybe- the aegis of Cervantes Institute? How would the Spanish authorities react to such a challenging offer? Could we envisage a consular office –at the request of Gibraltar- which would ease life to all those –Indian community, etc- who must now fly to London for a visa?

Finally, when you meet Gibraltarians in the course of your visit, do you think you can bridge the traditional suspicion that exists? Can Madrid make itself a trusted party? Can London for that matter?

We are not merely establishing confidence-building measures. The process is based on mutual trust which implies a shared responsibility too. Leadership and a single voice in both Madrid and Gibraltar are key in making them trusted parties. The same applies to London. The apparent lack of coherence between the Foreign Office and the MOD we saw last month jeopardized British credibility as a trusted party. I now see a new course.

As for myself, I come once again to Gibraltar as an individual expressing freely his view, a committed citizen but with a political responsibility too. As I did in 1998 and 2002 I come to listen to the Gibraltarians and to reflect with them not about our well know differing views on sovereignty, but about the real and daily life of today and tomorrow, which is now at the core of the dialogue process.


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