- The Washington Times - Monday, May 27, 2002

LONDON The British government, stung by growing criticism at home and abroad that it is trying to "sell out" British residents in Gibraltar, appears ready to abandon its plans to share sovereignty over the Mediterranean colony with Spain.
Spain ceded Gibraltar to Britain 289 years ago and has been trying to get it back ever since. The latest attempt, in the form of talks about joint rule over "the Rock" from London and Madrid, seems set to fare no better and likely will collapse.
Prime Minister Tony Blair's government proposed sharing sovereignty with Spain as a way to end the endless bickering with Madrid. But now even Mr. Blair appears weary and ready to throw in the towel.
"I have reason to believe that it will not be the end of the world for the prime minister if these talks fail," said one prominent member of Parliament from Mr. Blair's ruling Labor Party.
In trying to sell the idea of joint sovereignty, Mr. Blair has run into implacable opposition from most of the 30,000 Gibraltarians, who want to remain firmly British and who greet his ministers with jeers of "traitor" and "Judas."
Possibly more worrying for the prime minister are an opinion poll showing that 53 percent of Britons oppose what many describe as a "sellout" of Gibraltar, and the threat of a rebellion in Parliament over the issue from some of his own Labor legislators.
Gerald Kaufman, a powerful member of Parliament in Mr. Blair's party, said flatly, "We should never have started this process."
Negotiations between London and Madrid have been under way for months but have made little headway, and recently both governments conceded the talks had run into "real difficulties."
A major stumbling block is Mr. Blair's promise to Gibraltarians of a referendum on any agreement for joint sovereignty with Spain.
Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Pique has rejected the idea, and with good reason. Gibraltar has been British since the Spanish ceded it under the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, and the last time a referendum was held on the issue, in 1967, Gibraltarians decided to remain British by a margin of 12,094 to 44.
Mr. Blair's government knows full well the extent of the opposition, but diplomatic sources had suggested that the issue of joint sovereignty will remain a viable idea, to be resurrected at some point in the not-too-distant future.
But more recently British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw declared that the referendum which is certain to reject the notion of joint rule will decide the matter once and for all.
London's tougher attitude also draws from its insistence that Britain retain control over its military bases in Gibraltar, where it has about 420 naval and air force personnel stationed. The location of "the Rock" at the mouth of the Mediterranean makes it a vital base for operations abroad.


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