Dialogue must be three way
There was understandable unease here yesterday about the prospect of Spain’s King Felipe raising Gibraltar during a speech to the UK Parliament at the start of his state visit to Britain.
Given Spain’s approach to Gibraltar in recent years, the possibility of a reference to the Rock during an address to the mother of all parliaments was galling to many.
The focus of the visit was the UK and Spain’s “profoundly intertwined” national interests. Having reflected on what the two countries have in common, however, it was obvious too that Felipe would talk about where the differences lie.
For this community, to see the Spanish monarch raise Gibraltar in the UK Parliament was maddening and frustrating but, given the background, also highly predictable.
Having broached the subject, it was no surprise to see him point toward the bilateral dialogue that Spain has hankered after for decades. But we all know the answer to that proposition, Felipe included.
Baron Fowler, the Lord Speaker, made that clear in replying to the monarch’s speech during the event in Westminster. We do not agree on everything, Baron Fowler told him, and that includes Gibraltar.
In the run-up to the monarch’s speech too, MPs had left no doubt that the defence of Gibraltar’s right to self-determination was a red line for Britain.
For the avoidance of doubt, the UK Government stated last night: “While Gibraltar is an issue on which we do not see eye to eye, our position is clear: the sovereignty of Gibraltar is not up for discussion.”
Felipe’s reference to “two governments” was unfortunate to say the least, because it clouded the many positive elements of a speech that spoke of shared values and goals in difficult times.
But it is important too to consider what Felipe did not say about Gibraltar.
There was no mention, for example, of the words sovereignty or colony. There was no talk of “an anachronism”, which was how he described Gibraltar when he raised it before the UN last year.
The reference to Gibraltar was carefully crafted and displayed the same restraint that the Spanish Government has shown on this subject since the departure of José Manuel García-Margallo from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. The approach is much more subtle, although Spain’s ultimate goal remains the same.
The Gibraltar Government’s reaction to the speech was also restrained, as was the UK’s. But the red lines are clearly marked out.
Against the context of Brexit, Felipe’s talk of “dialogue and effort” toward “arrangements acceptable to all” is not necessarily a bad thing. Gibraltar shares many of the interests that are common to both the UK and Spain.
But any dialogue and effort over the Rock’s future must include Gibraltar, and Spain must accept once and for all that sovereignty is simply not on the table.