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Spanish leaks helped derail joint sovereignty bid, Jack Straw says

The Rock of the British overseas territory of Gibraltar, historically claimed by Spain, is seen from the Spanish side of the border near La Linea de la Concepcion, southern Spain, November 23, 2018. REUTERS/Jon Nazca

Leaks by “incontinent” Spanish officials helped derail the 2002 joint sovereignty proposal by driving Gibraltarians “berserk” and increasing pressure on negotiators during secret talks, Labour’s former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has told a House of Lords select committee.

Constant scrutiny as a result of leaks meant the controversial bilateral negotiations between the UK and Spain were in effect being held “in a goldfish bowl” and were destined to fail, the former UK minister said.

Mr Straw’s evidence was published this week by the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution as part of a report on parliamentary scrutiny of treaties, and offers new insight into the UK’s thinking at the time.

Mr Straw, who alongside Peter Hain was one of the architects of the joint sovereignty proposal, was responding to a question from Lord Pannick on the tension between effective diplomacy and democratic accountability.

Speaking about the wider principles at stake, he said that while everybody was in favour of transparency, it would be naive to believe delicate negotiations could be effectively conducted in public.

To illustrate his point, Mr Straw referred to the discussions on joint sovereignty, which were ultimately scuttled under intense pressure from Gibraltar.

“From 2001 onwards, Lord Hain and I were involved in very detailed negotiations with the Government of Spain about the provisions in the 1713 treaty of Utrecht over Gibraltar,” Mr Straw told the Lords committee.

“We wanted to settle this difficult trilateral issue between the Government of Gibraltar, the Government of Spain and us about a way forward.”

“These were really complicated negotiations that in the end died a death.”

“Lord Hain and I built up good personal relationships with the Government of Spain, particularly the Foreign Minister, a man called Josep Piqué. Those were confidential.”

“However, the Moncloa, which is the equivalent of No. 10 in Madrid, kept leaking what we were doing and our life became impossible.”

“They would leak it, just because there was somebody who was incontinent in that office, and then the Gibraltarians would go berserk.”

"I am not saying that had there been proper confidentiality on those negotiations we would have got a satisfactory result, but there was no chance of getting any decent result while we were negotiating in this goldfish bowl.”

The joint sovereignty negotiations was one of the most serious threats to Gibraltar recent times, but served also to rally the Gibraltarians and reaffirm this community’s solid stance on British sovereignty.

Mr Straw himself was the recipient of Gibnraltarian anger during a visit to Gibraltar in May 2002, during which he was heckled and booed.

After nearly a year of negotiation, the then Foreign Minister made a formal statement to the House of Commons on July 12, 2002, in which he said the UK and Spain had agreed to share sovereignty over the Rock.

Gibraltarian outrage at the move resulted in the 2002 referendum organised by the Government of Gibraltar, led at the time by Sir Peter Caruana.

Turnout in the referendum was a massive 88%, with 98.9% of voters rejecting the joint sovereignty proposal.

"Fellow Gibraltarians, today we have sent a clear message to the world. One, that this is our homeland; two, that we are a people with political rights that we will not give up; and three, that those rights include the right to freely direct our own future and we will certainly not give that up," Sir Peter said at the time.

Since then, the UK Government’s double-lock commitment on sovereignty - that it will neither change nor even discuss Gibraltar’s sovereignty against the wishes of the Gibraltarians - has been enshrined in Gibraltar’s constitution and is publicly reaffirmed as government policy by British ministers in any public intervention on Gibraltar-related matters.

During his evidence to the Lords’ committee, Mr Straw was quizzed about transparency in the negotiation of international treaties.

He replied that there should be transparency at the beginning and the end of negotiations, but that only negotiators could decide how much to reveal during talks.

He dismissed a challenge from the committee’s chairman, Baroness Taylor of Bolton, who suggested there had been no transparency at the start of the joint sovereignty negotiations with Spain.

“There was plenty of transparency there, in that we told the House of Commons that we were involved in the negotiations under the so-called Brussels process,” he replied.

“Not only would it have been wrong for us not to have said this, but it would have been political suicide for Lord Hain and me anyway.”

“The process, which was called the Brussels process, was public, for sure, and we set out what we were trying to achieve, which was to continue with Gibraltar being ultimately under the British Crown, as long as the Gibraltarians wanted that."

“We were trying to sort out much better the practical arrangements between Gibraltar, the Kingdom of Spain and us, so that we would no longer have these continuing difficulties for the life of Gibraltarians about how they made phone calls, whether border controls were exercised and so on.”

“It was the middle bit that we had to negotiate in public.”