Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Tight lipped, but Gib-Spain-UK report ‘progress’

By Brian Reyes in Palma de Mallorca

Trilateral forum looks to solutions on airport, pensions and telecommunications

The third meeting of the trilateral forum for dialogue between the governments of Gibraltar, the UK and Spain proved “cordial and constructive,” yet failed to reach any definitive agreement on key topics under discussion.

All three parties stressed that significant progress had been made and that an “acceptable and mutually beneficial solution” was possible on central issues such as joint use of the airport, the Spanish pensions question and telecommunications. But officials offered little detail as to the content of their discussions over the past 24 hours, or any insight into what tangible headway had been made.

“The reason for being tight-lipped is that the parties agreed that nothing was agreed until everything was agreed,” said Peter Caruana, the Chief Minister.

“In each of the areas, there is a substantial body of agreement, [but] there is no [final] agreement yet because there are still several issues to resolve in each of them.”

Throughout the day it was plainly evident that the three main players in the talks – Mr Caruana for Gibraltar, Dominick Chilcott, director for Mediterranean Europe at the British Government’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office and head of the UK delegation, and José Pons, director general for Europe and North America at the Spanish Government’s Foreign Affairs Ministry (Ministerio de Asuntos Exteriores MAE) – were completely at ease with each other and had a close working rapport.

At one point, Mr Chilcott and Sr Pons were returning from a short stroll through the hotel’s gardens during a midday coffee break and stopped to greet the Chief Minister, who was chatting with reporters from GBC (Gibraltar Broadcasting Corporation) and the Chronicle.

“I hope this tripartite process hasn’t gone bilateral,” Mr Caruana joked to broad grins all around, before the three strolled together back to the negotiating table.

At the end of the talks, Mr Chilcott offered a similar assessment to the Chief Minister’s about the pace of progress at the forum.

“There’s no sign of any sort of hesitation or recalcitrance on the part of the three parties involved in this process, because we all have an identified objective of making it work for the benefit of us all,” Mr Chilcott told the Chronicle.

“We all have a stake in making this work and we recognise that we’re doing something which is new and, at least from the point of view of both the Gibraltar and the Spanish government, something that is rather a bold step in political terms.

So nobody wants this not to succeed, but I think when you’re dealing with problems that have been intractable for so long, I think people unfortunately will have to be realistic about how long it will take.”

Prior to the encounter in Palma de Mallorca there had been an expectation that a date would be set for a meeting of the forum at ministerial level before the end of this year. But it emerged yesterday that Britain’s commitments as current president of the European Union were making it difficult to find a suitable diary date. Even so, delegates at this week’s talks said the UK was working to find a diary slot in the coming months and that, in any case, progress toward any agreement did not hinge on a ministerial-level meeting taking place.

“I don’t think the date of the ministerial meeting will determine the pace at which we are working,” Mr Chilcott said.

Joint Use of the Airport

Much of the debate over the past two days centred on the issue of joint use of the airport. The forum discussed a number of issues within this context and, according to Sr Pons, negotiations are “pretty advanced.”

“But in the same way that, in the past, we have not stated in what areas we have made progress, I am not going to reveal the content of what we have agreed until everything is agreed,” the Spanish official told reporters at a press conference.

“I understand the interest but I can’t signal what the exact points are. Some of the agreed points are important, as are some of the ones still to be agreed.”

He highlighted that two important difficulties stemmed from the fact that the airport is a military facility with a dual civilian role, and that it is located on the isthmus, over which there are sovereignty-related disagreements.

“If it was in any other territory then the agreement would probably be reached faster, given the goodwill being shown by all parties,” Sr Pons said.

For his part, Mr Caruana repeatedly stressed that Gibraltar would not entertain any agreement over the airport that in any way infringed its position on sovereignty.

“Everybody knows in respect of the airport... that we are not willing to contemplate a form of airport agreement that prejudices exclusive British sovereignty, jurisdiction and control, and those are the parameters that we’re under,” he said. But he added that the same argument applied to the Spanish position and that negotiations were taking place within the political space in between both parties.

“For Spain it’s important that they do not lose whatever ground they think they have on their sovereignty claim, which we of course reject.

But so long as there is no prejudice on our views on sovereignty, jurisdiction and control, Spain is content not to lose ground and therefore that is the area that we are exploiting, in between.”


Pensions

The head of the British delegation at the talks, Mr Chilcott, was asked to comment on recent Spanish media reports that the UK Government was willing to pay 40 million Euros to former Spanish workers in Gibraltar. He raised his eyebrows as the question – and the figure - was translated and commented:

“I think it would be unwise to get into a discussion about particular numbers."

There’s been some very useful groundwork done by the technical working group in trying to establish reliable data about the numbers of pensioners and the level at which they receive pensions,” he told reporters.

“We’ve had a good discussion on the basis of that data as to how we can take the issue forward and resolve the differences between us.”

He described as “notable” the positive nature of these discussions, which he said “augured well for the future.” “But exactly how we’re going to resolve our differences I think is a matter which we want to keep to ourselves for the time being,” he added.

Speaking to the Chronicle after the press conference, Mr Chilcott said it had taken some time to collect the raw data relating to the number of pensioners and the amount of money they are entitled to. “Just getting the facts sorted out before you even work on the policy questions, these things I’m afraid do take a lot of time,” he said.

Telecommunications

In common with all the other topics discussed at the forum, the three parties agreed that good progress had been made in resolving the telecommunications issue, though once again they offered little additional information.

Mr Caruana told reporters at the press conference that final agreement on this matter - and on the airport and the pension question – would probably come at around the same time.

“Telecommunications is an issue that, as far as Gibraltar is concerned, should be resolved in the first wave of agreements,” he concluded.

Maritime Issues

Reference was made to maritime matters in the joint statement issued at the end of the talks.

The recent meeting between the ports of Gibraltar and Algeciras was noted and all three parties paid particular attention to environmental concerns, as highlighted by the recent oil spill near the refinery.

“All the parties agree on the importance of collaborating closely and setting out mechanisms to avoid the environmental degradation produced in the area as a result of oil spills,” the statement said.

It did not, however, make any reference to concerns about air pollution from the Campo de Gibraltar refinery and industrial complex.

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