Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Gibraltar should shift from tobacco-petrol economy, says Estrella

Dominique Searle reports from Madrid

Frontier ‘should not be political weapon’

Spain’s plans to ease the frontier controls by increasing resources will be accompanied by a political conviction that the frontier should never again be used to exert pressure on the people of Gibraltar and its surrounds.

That is the position as stated by PSOE MP Rafael Estrella a leading figure behind the current talks process.

His remarks, were made yesterday at a talk organised by the Fundacion Hispano Britanico in association with the British Chamber of Commerce in Spain, and were accompanied by a call to Gibraltar to rethink its reliance on “out of date” economic devices such as low duty goods. It emerged that trilateral talks are likely to take place in June.

Sr Estrella’s talk at the Ritz Hotel, Madrid attracted the great and the good in Madrid including its well established Gibraltar group. The British Ambassador, Stephen Wright, Jose Pons the Exteriores Director for Europe who leads the talks, Agustin Anguera, the new Gibraltar desk man at the Spanish Foreign Ministry (Ministerio de Asuntos Exteriores MAE) joined Gibraltar business figures such as Joe and James Gaggero, Silvio Canepa and Michael Langdon.

But there was an underlying message from Sr Estrella to Spanish business leaders and former senior diplomats that they should use their influence on the Opposition PP (Partido Popular) to stop making Gibraltar an issue for internal political mischief in Spain.

“This process is good for Gibraltar and Britain and for Spain but if it is used as a source of conflict internally in Spain then the cost will be too high and it will be set aside,” warned Sr Estrella recalling that the PSOE had never taken the opportunity to accuse Spain of being willing to sacrifice half of its sovereignty claim during the joint sovereignty talks period.

On that latter process he made very clear that the referendum had killed this and that he believed that Peter Hain had been sincere in his determination to find a solution to the issue.

Mr Caruana he said had not only “dynamited” the process but gained credibility from the referendum that has helped in the current talks.

The new process, said Sr Estrella, had shown that where Britain had been urging Madrid to “win hearts and minds” the essential issue was actually to speak to Gibraltarians and listen to them.

Whilst he emphasised that Spain would never give up its position on fundamentals - and he did not expect Britain or Gibraltar would do so either - he did feel that this process will ultimately lead to better relations between Britain and Spain on the broader front.

On the airport Sr Estrella said that this will need time although there appears to be confidence within the Spanish Foreign Ministry that an agreement is possible this year that allows each side to safeguard its position.

On a more fluid frontier Sr Estrella called on the Gibraltarian community to consider that it should modernise the economy and that low duty is not a defensible, sustainable way of running the economy. He made reference to the recent increase in local charges in Gibraltar and suggested that increased duties might also go some way to easing these.

“We shall adopt measures so that the frontier flow does not return to being something that reflects a particular political situation or incident. These things should not be reflected directly on people. But the Gibraltar authorities must take some responsibility too since it is the low duty culture that puts pressure on the frontier.”

Sr Estrella went on to say that whilst in 2003 80% of people caught passing dutiable goods were Spanish that figure had shifted to 65% being foreign (non-Spanish).

“Gibraltar cannot always live from petrol, tobacco and quesos de bola,” said Sr Estrella, “This is not a 21st century economic activity.”

Meanwhile it emerged that Fermin Zelada, a former diplomat who dealt closely with Gibraltar had passed away this weekend.

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