Airport deal on the menu as Caruana interrupts holiday for working dinner with Spanish
|by JOE GARCIA
The chief minister Peter Caruana has had to interrupt his holiday to hold an impromptu meeting with the Spanish. This will take place at a working dinner this evening, which raises the question: What's cooking?
The fact that the No.2 at the Spanish Foreign Ministry, Benardino Leon, will be taking part raises the political profile of the meeting. The senior Spanish official attending the tripartite meetings, Director-general for Europe Jose Pons, will also be there - as well as Gibraltar's chief secretary Ernest Montado.
The UK representative at the tripartite talks, Dominick Chilcott, will not be there, nor has it been announced officially if anyone else from the Foreign Office - the tea boy, for example - will be coming at least to enjoy the food.
An official statement from No.6 Convent Place said: "The meeting is to prepare for the full ministerial round of the Trilateral forum envisaged in the autumn."
The full ministerial meeting envisaged is one where foreign secretary Jack Straw and his Spanish counterpart Miguel Angel Moratinos will be attending.
From a UK perspective, if Mr Straw is being lined up for the autumn one would have expected a UK official attending tis evening to take part in the preparations. The fact that they are keeping away would seem to indicate that there is a question mark over the 'full ministerial meeting' taking place, and that what will be happening this evening is an exercise in exploring whether or not such a meeting can crystallise.
For the go-ahead to be given to such a meeting it would be necessary to establish progress on two fronts: The airport and the Spanish pensions.
From a Spanish perspective, it would be difficult for them to agree on an airport deal if there is no progress on the pensions.
And from a Gibraltar perspective, both an airport deal and a pensions deal are essentially seen as progress for Spain.
On the pensions, it has often been said here that the Spanish Government must also make itself responsible for meeting, at least in part, what their compatriots are demanding. It was a Spanish Government that closed the frontier and withdrew the Spanish labour force, thus creating the problem in the first place. Will they make a gesture, such as being prepared to foot part of the bill? For the Gibraltar government, however, this is a matter for London and Madrid only.
On the airport, the Spanish Government would like involvement in the running of it, not necessarily by themselves but by a quasi-official organisation.
Judging by what was said and not said at the recent Albufeira meeting, the idea of a two-terminal airport is out of the question - although Mr Caruana did speak of a derivative of it when he spoke of "a single terminal for joint use" which is almost the same thing by another name and unaccepable to all those who think that there is no need for a special airport deal and that all Spain has to do is allow its airlines to fly to Gibraltar - as Franco used to do!
Tonight's meeting will no doubt be used essentially to explore if there can be movement over the airport, such as if the Spanish are prepared to start flying to the Rock if all they get are improved faclities for passengers from Spain. The Gibraltar Government would be prepared to agree to improved facilities, connecting the Gibraltar terminal by tunnel or by bridge to the Spanish mainland, for example.
However, it would be a political hot potato to allow Spanish police, immigration or customs officials to gain a foothold within the terminal as this would be seen in Gibraltar generally as an infringement on matters of sovereignty - given that the Spanish Government says that the airport area is not British but Spanish sovereign territory. If having a Spanish presence anywhere on Gibraltar is regarded as a no-go area, the matter is more sensitive in the isthmus itself for the reasons explained.
The Spanish Foreign Ministry are known to be keen to show progress over the talks to ward off adverse political opinion in Madrid. Sr Moratinos would love to hold a meeting with Mr Straw (and Mr Caruana, it is presumed) and announce what they can describe as 'progress'.
But it is doubtful that Sr Moratinos would go ahead with a 'full ministerial meeting' if there was nothing to show from their perspective.
And Mr Caruana cannot afford to allow the kind of 'progress' that would be interpreted in Gibraltar to mean that the Spaniards are gaining ground.
The UK? A question of tea and sympathy, I presume. The Ministry of Defence will be keeping a close watch on what are the expectations and determine if their own interests are to suffer or gain out of it.Apart from the purely military aspects there is also the question of cost - who pays for what if there is a deal?