I am vice-chairman of the British Gibraltar, group, but I speak for myself on this occasion, as will the chairman, the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin), later in the debate.
The 1980 Lisbon agreement and the 1984 Brussels agreement, which followed the opening of the border between Spain and Gibraltar, restored communications and free movement of persons and vehicles across the border. However, the Brussels agreement permits discussion of the sovereignty of Gibraltar between Spain and Britain. That is at odds with the spirit of the preamble to the 1969 constitution, in which the Government make it clear that they will never enter into arrangements under which the people of Gibraltar would pass to the sovereignty of another state against the free and democratic expression of their will. That was based on the 1967 referendum when, of a total electorate of 12,762, 12,132 opted to remain under Britain and only 44 to go under Spanish rule. Subsequent opinion polls have endorsed that finding. What is unique about the Crown colony of Gibraltar is that the people there are, indeed, British citizens.
What is worrying even to this day is the consistent avowed intention of Spain to gain sovereignty over Gibraltar, albeit by peaceful means. No doubt the closure of the frontier by Franco in 1969 was described as being done by peaceful means, although it was highly provocative. Obviously, the Brussels agreement, where it allows for the discussion of sovereignty between the British and Spanish Governments, rubs salt into the raw and all too recent wounds of the people of Gibraltar.
I am concerned not with the past but with the present. What gives me great concern is the apparent harassment that is now taking place on the border. It is because of alleged tobacco smuggling. There is, indeed, tobacco smuggling, as I observe and other observers seem to agree, mainly by unemployed Spanish nationals who, stuffing lots of cigarettes and tobacco into their voluminous clothing, cross and recross the border five or six times a day without, apparently, let or hindrance. However, when it comes to vehicular traffic there is no green channel and every car that passes across that frontier is searched. In practical terms, that means a wait of an hour and a half.
The House can imagine the position of a business man who tries to go from Gibraltar to Spain in the morning—an hour and a half's wait going and a further hour and a half's wait coming back. The waiting time can increase to as much as four hours. I can describe that only as a Franconian approach. It gives me great concern that British citizens are consistently harassed in that way. If it is not the political intention of Spain to disrupt the commerce and economy of Gibraltar, that certainly is the effect. Of course, it is disrupted in other ways, too. Much of the building on Gibraltar is now carried out by Spanish contractors.
Spain has not stopped there. It has made allegations about Gibraltar turning a blind eye to drug trafficking and money laundering. The Foreign Office acknowledges that that is completely untrue. It might be better described in less parliamentary terms as a bare-faced lie. All those add up to the continuing harassment of Gibraltar by Spain. It is with much sorrow that I say that those issues should have been sorted out before Spain was granted admission to the Common Market. It is difficult to rid one's mind of the conclusion that the acts of Franco appear to be continuing, but this time they are carried out by a democratically elected Government.
As the House is aware, the economy of Gibraltar was entirely dependent on the dockyard and the forces and the money that they brought in. With the closure of the dockyard and the removal of the Army, Gibraltar was struck tremendous economic blows. It intends to become self-sufficient. It is making great commercial strides and it is seeking the establishment of an offshore financial centre. For those attempts to be viable there must be freedom of movement and travel for those operating in Gibraltar as business men.
The harassment of British citizens at the frontier is unhelpful. The failure to re-establish the Gibraltar-Algeciras ferry also hinders economic development. Of greatest concern is the issue of air transport. The Gibraltar Assembly legitimately refuses to ratify the vague, short airport agreement. Because of that vagueness, that agreement appears to give the Spanish the opportunity to interfere in the sovereignty issue over Gibraltar. That legitimate refusal is used to block the admission of Gibraltar to the European Economic Community liberalisation process. Without that, Gibraltarians cannot fly direct to either Spain or any other EEC country.
I cannot better express the concern felt than by quoting the annual report of 1990 from the Chamber of Commerce of Gibraltar, which states:
The contention of the Chamber is that the people of Gibraltar should enjoy the inclusion of Gibraltar's airport in the EEC's air liberalisation process, as of right. Gibraltar's rights to this process were firmly established by the airport's inclusion in the 1983 Inter-Regional Air Services Directive, and were supported by HMG up to July 1987 in Luxembourg when Spain first sought to exclude Gibraltar on the grounds of disputed sovereignty.
What discussions are now taking place between the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence about the Royal Air Force in Gibraltar? The airport, which will be the lifeline of Gibraltarian commerce, depends to a large extent on the support and the resourcing of the RAF. During defence questions the Government have expressed their concern to keep the RAF in Gibraltar, but there is great anxiety in Gibraltar that that support will be withdrawn.
What active steps are the Government taking to help Gibraltar to become economically self-sufficient? Have discussions been held on Gibraltar exhibiting at Expo 92? Is not the section of the Brussels agreement that permits bilateral discussion of sovereignty between Brussels and Spain counter-productive as it causes great concern among Gibraltarians? It also undermines their confidence in Britain's intentions, which does not encourage their co-operation.
Britain has repeatedly reiterated its commitment to support the 1969 constitution, but when one sees other documents such as the Brussels agreement, one begins to wonder whether the Government are talking with a forked tongue.
We owe the Gibraltarians a considerable debt for their support in many conflicts, including most recently the Falklands and the Gulf. Are the British citizens in Gibraltar—that means all Gibraltarians—to be treated as second-class EC citizens? We must support the 1969 constitution not only with words but with actions. We must support Gibraltar in its economic endeavours and work to allow Gibraltarians to be not only politically but economically free.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Mr. Young) on being rather more successful than I have been in the ballot for this Adjournment debate. He knows of my considerable interest in Gibraltar as chairman of the British Gibraltar group, and I thank him for leaving me a couple of minutes to endorse what he has said, especially about frontier delays and air services, and to add three points.
First, Gibraltar still rejects the 1987 airport agreement, arguing—with some justification—that the Government proceeded during the negotiations in the face of known Gibraltarian opposition to what was eventually agreed with Spain. It is felt in Gibraltar that, by providing for special arrangements for Spain under a joint use regime, the agreement represents a de facto infringement of British sovereignty. As a result, there is now an impasse, which is causing considerable frustration on all sides.
It is in the interests of all concerned, especially those living on both sides of the frontier—in Gibraltar and La Linea—that the matter be speedily resolved. As a first step, it is important to clear up the ambiguities that arise from differences in interpretation of the airport agreement by Britain and by Spain. For instance, a similar agreement on an international airport at Basle requires some 2,000 pages to explain precisely what it means. There is no question of a dispute between any of the parties in that case, so it seems illogical that the Gibraltar airport agreement runs to only some three pages. That is obviously part of the reason why such misunderstandings have arisen. Although it accepts that its airport must remain under British authority, Gibraltar would welcome its use by Spanish or, for that matter, any other foreign airlines.
Secondly, Gibraltarians rightly resent their exclusion from the EC air liberalisation packages. There have been two and a third is on its way. It is a negation of Gibraltar's right to benefit unconditionally from its membership of the EEC, which it has by virtue of article 227 of the treaty of Rome. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) was Secretary of State for Transport, he said that all Community legislation applies to Gibraltar unless, like the common agricultural policy or value added tax, they are specifically exempted.
When my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Sir G. Howe) was Foreign Secretary, he said that the Government could not contemplate anything that undermined Community law or the legitimate rights of Gibraltar as part of the European Community. Yet Gibraltar is still excluded from the air liberalisation packages despite the fact that it is making great strides in changing to a free market economy rather than being so dependent on the Ministry of Defence for its national income. I believe that the Gibraltar development corporation is taking the case to the European Court of Justice. I shall be interested to hear from my hon. Friend the Minister about the position of her Majesty's Government in relation to that case.
Thirdly, Gibraltar should now participate in the so-called Brussels process. By doing so, it will enhance its sovereignty if sovereignty means having control over its own affairs. If it does not take part, Gibraltar's sovereignty will be diminished. It should be made clear to Spain that, if Gibraltar is expected to participate in the Brussels process—it is high time that it did—the subject of sovereignty must come off the Brussels agenda. A recent opinion poll showed that 60 per cent. of the people in Gibraltar favour participation, but the issue of whether sovereignty should be discussed was not included on the questionnaire.
The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East and I visited Gibraltar with four of our parliamentary colleagues from 2 to 5 June, and I should like to place on the record our appreciation of the warm welcome that we received from everyone in Gibraltar. There was no doubt that they liked seeing British Members of Parliament on the Rock. It enabled us to see Gibraltarians' problems from their view rather than through the rose-tinted spectacles of Westminister and it gave Gibraltarians the opportunity to remind us that they still feel strongly that they wish to remain British.
I begin by thanking the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Mr. Young) and my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin), first, for having remained in the House until nearly 4 am to discuss this important subject and, secondly, for giving me the first opportunity that I have had since I became the Minister responsible for Gibraltar to comment in the House on the position in Gibraltar and the policies of the Government towards this dependent territory.
There are two basic pillars on which our relationship rests. The first—to which the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East has referred—is the Gibraltar Constitution Order 1969. That sets out the constitutional provisions for the dependent territory and specifically states in the preamble that
Her Majesty's Government will never enter into arrangements under which the people of Gibraltar would pass under the sovereignty of another state against their freely and democratically expressed wishes".
That undertaking remains, and it means what it says. The Government stand by it and this Minister of all people—and the House will understand why—has no intention of presiding over any hedging on that undertaking.
The second pillar of our relationship rests on the fact that Gibraltar is a democracy—and a rather lively one at that. I shall come to our relations with Spain later on in my remarks, but I would just say that it simply will not do for Spain to refer to Gibraltar as the "last colony in Europe". Our relationship with Gibraltar has lasted nearly 300 years—considerably longer than the lifespan of many of our EC partners. That relationship has developed in a way that has enabled Gibraltar to have its own Government with democratic credentials which no one can call into question.
Since 1969, a number of significant events have taken place. First, the United Kingdom has joined the European Economic Community and, with that accession, Gibraltar became a part of the Community while remaining outside the customs union. Secondly, over the years, Gibraltar's direct economic dependency on the United Kingdom has diminished to a point where this year the last Overseas Development Administration programme in Gibraltar should run out. Economically, Gibraltar is looking for ways of standing on its own feet—and the people and Government deserve every congratulation on that. As the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East requested, the Gibraltarian people and Government have the full support of Her Majesty's Government in those endeavours.
Thirdly, the changing military and strategic position we face in Europe has meant that Gibraltar is no longer the military garrison that it used to be—a sort of Aldershot in the Mediterranean. The resident battalion has been withdrawn. Most of the dockyard has been transferred to the Gibraltar Government. Thirty years ago the Ministry of Defence owned 60 per cent. of the land area. Today it owns 28 per cent. These are, of course, matters for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, but it is difficult to see this trend being reversed. My hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside spoke about the airport. I must also refer that matter to my right hon. Friend.
The fourth important change is that Spain has become a member both of the Community and of the NATO alliance. She is a valued partner and a trusted ally of the United Kingdom. I was sorry to hear a Labour Member make wholly unwarranted comparisons between the Spanish Government and the former regime. I hope that on reflection he will feel that such comparisons are unwise.
It has become increasingly clear to me—and I think that I can say that this view is shared by the Chief Minister of Gibraltar and by Gibraltarians themselves—that the future for the Rock lies within the Community, as it does for Britain herself. That future is promising. Gibraltar is the southern gateway to the largest single market in the world and the doorway to one of the most popular and thriving tourist markets anywhere.
As I said earlier, Gibraltar has already made enormous strides in preparing herself for this role for which she is uniquely qualified by her geographic position and by the ingenuity and acumen of her people. But the House will know that Spain has a territorial claim over Gibraltar. The fact that we reject that claim does not make it go away.
I shall try to sum up for the House the nature of the Spanish claim. Spain accepts—acquiesces to might be a more accurate phrase—the terms of the treaty of Utrecht, which ceded the town and castle of Gibraltar to the British Crown in 1713. She does not accept our sovereignty over the isthmus which Spain regards as having been usurped over the years. I make no comment on the Spanish claim other than to say that it does not change our right to administer Gibraltar, that it exists as a claim, and that it will not go away. Equally, we accept that independence for Gibraltar is not an option.
It is against that background that Gibraltar's future in the Community must be built., The fact of Community membership is crucial to Gibraltar's future, but the fact of Spain's membership is crucial, too. Already, as a Community member, Spain plays her part in framing EC regulations and laws which have effect in Gibraltar. I have to tell the House bluntly—and Gibraltarians are all too well aware of this—that from time to time Spain either pursues or seeks to safeguard her claim and the bilateral negotiating process between Britain and Spain as she sees them from within the Community. Gibraltar's exclusion from the aviation liberalisation packages, to which my hon. Friend referred, bears witness to this, as does Spain's current refusal to agree to the external frontiers convention which has been agreed by all other EC partners.
In my judgment, the current position is unsatisfactory for Gibraltar, for Spain and for the United Kingdom. But I repeat that I am not prepared to contemplate reneging on the undertaking given by this House to the Gibraltar people in 1969; nor am I prepared to ignore the fact of Gibraltarian democracy.
A year ago when I visited Gibraltar I called on the people themselves to initiate a debate about their own future. We will listen to that debate and we will look seriously at any proposals that emerge from it, but we will not seek to impose any ideas upon the people. They have their undertaking in the 1969 constitution order and they have their democracy as a framework within which to discuss their future.
Last May when the Spanish Prime Minister came to the United Kingdom he called for an "effort of imagination" on this subject. I say that this effort must come not just from Gibraltar but from Spain, too. It is not enough to talk about "the last colony". Spain has only to look across the Straits of Gibraltar to appreciate that these things are never quite as simple as they seem. Spain is a big and secure enough democracy to recognise that the democracy of the Gibraltarians merits respect, too.
The House will be well aware of my personal affection for Spain. Not surprisingly, throughout my life, I have come into contact with many British hispanophiles. Nearly all of them carry in their rucksack some ingenious scheme that purports to solve the Gibraltar problem. I believe that it cannot be "solved" in the simple sense of the word, but there is just a chance that it may be dissolved within the EC. There is a sea change taking place in Europe, involving more co-operation, fewer barriers and a greater understanding generally. That tide of new thinking has the capacity to break through the tensions and mistrust that have for so long bedevilled Gibraltar's relationship with Spain. Gibraltar's duty, and Spain's duty too, must be to make sure that these opportunities do not pass them by.
We in Britain cannot, will not, repudiate the undertakings that we have given. That would be a denial of everything we claim to stand for in the world. But we are willing to show all the imagination that may be required of us.
If Gibraltarian democracy is to mean anything—I believe that it does—progress depends on the freely and democratically expressed wishes of the Gibraltarians. If Gibraltar makes that effort of imagination, I hope that Spain will do so, too.