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Apr 07 - Lidington Responds to Foreign Affairs Committee Gibraltar Concerns

lidingtonIn a meeting giving oral evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee in the UK’s House of Commons last week, Europe Minister David Lidington, told the committee that he ‘would not object to Gibraltar being more closely integrated in some elements of the EU acquis, if that was what Gibraltar wanted.’

The meeting, chaired by the Committee, brought up their recent visit to Gibraltar that saw them hold a question and answer session with Chief Minister Fabian Picardo. Following the session, the Committee also met with Foreign Secretary William Hague to discuss a number of issues that arose.

During the session with Minister Lidington he noted that his intention would be to visit Gibraltar this year, as it is ‘time for [him] to go again’, however he needs to find the right balance between the different potential visits to the other 50 countries and territories he is responsible for.

Responding to a question on the Chief Minister’s claim that the Gibraltar Governor’s office lacks resources, Minister Lidington insisted that he disagreed with Mr. Picardo as the current strength of the Convent is two UK, based staff and 11 locally engaged staff, with regular visits from FCO staff in London and one senior official who maintains regular telephone and e-mail contact with the Chief Minister. He added, ‘the Chief Minister knows that he can approach officials and Ministers at any time if he has particular concerns.’

The meeting acted as an in-depth response to concerns raised by Chief Minister Fabian Picardo during the Committee’s session Gibraltar. Questions from the panel included the why there is a feeling in Gibraltar that the Foreign Office views the Overseas Territories as somewhat of a nuisance? Minister Lidington’s response noted that suspicion form the Gibraltarian’s still lingers following former efforts to move towards shared sovereignty of the Overseas territory, with Spain.

The Minister added, ‘I do not think that the present Government, from the Prime Minister down, could easily have been more forthright than we have been. It has been made clear again and again, including by the Prime Minister in his video message to the people of Gibraltar on Gibraltar day last year, that Gibraltar remains British by the free choice of the people of Gibraltar. We will not engage in negotiations with Spain about sovereignty unless at some stage that were to be the wish of Gibraltar, and we are not going to talk about sovereignty on Gibraltar behind Gibraltar’s back in any way. We have been absolutely clear on that.’

Commenting on the Chief Minister’s statement that Gibraltar may want to become more integrated with Europe than Britain, Minister Lidington insisted that this could lead to Gibraltar becoming part of the Schengen agreement, which would involve a negotiation ‘at minimum’ as well as possible changes to the European treaties.

With regards to Spain’s Estrech Oriental, a site of Community Importance that impedes into BGTW, Minister Lidington said that the former Government challenged the Spanish listing. Currently the UK has asked the European Commission to ‘infract Spain under article 258 of the TFEU, for its failure to consult us on its designation of Estrecho Oriental as an SCI.

‘The Commission regard this as a bilateral sovereignty dispute and it does not want to get involved, therefore what we are doing in practical terms is to resist very strongly any evidence that Spain is acting in a way that seeks to give effect to its claims to have some sort of management responsibilities over the Gibraltar waters element of Estrecho Oriental.

‘We have taken action, for example, when the Spanish Government last summer put a bunkering company on notice that it was acting against Spanish royal decree. That is also why we have reacted strongly on the two occasions, including this week, when Spain has sent a survey vessel into Gibraltar waters and started trying to carry out surveying work.’

NATO Concerns

Responding to a question on when the Government has ‘sought to exert pressure through NATO’ to end Spain’s non-compliance with fellow NATO warships, belonging to the Royal Navy, the Minister insisted that it is ‘not good practice; it is not the behaviour you would expect from an ally in the transatlantic alliance.’

He continued, ‘but we do not think that raising this at NATO is going to be the appropriate way forward. Precisely because this has been a long-standing, very regrettable practice by Spain, this is not getting in the way of sensible, practical, NATO operational planning. The Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force have built the STANAG reservation into their planning arrangements for many years.

‘I am advised by the MOD that this has minimal if any impact upon operations, so for example during the Libya operations in 2011, UK units called at Gibraltar for ammunition and other supplies. Other NATO allies—including Canada, the US and Norway last year—regularly use Gibraltar for operational reasons. Individual UK units that are assigned to NATO, such as the mine warfare vessels that are part of the standing NATO mine counter-measure group in the Med, call into Gibraltar from time to time, and of course there are a large number of individual ship visits by Royal Navy vessels to Gibraltar. I think this is a practice by Spain that we regard as an irritant. It is bad practice, bur it is not getting in the way of proper operational planning or activity.’