A Spanish cabinet minister has visited Gibraltar for the first time in more than 300 years, while Madrid insisted his trip did not signify any change to its claim to the British territory.
AFP - Spain's foreign minister arrived Tuesday in Gibraltar on the first visit by a member of the Madrid government since the rocky outcrop was captured by Britain three centuries ago.
Miguel Angel Moratinos crossed the border between Spain and the British colony by car at 1:55 pm (1155 GMT) for talks with his British counterpart David Miliband and Gibraltar Chief Minister Peter Caruana.
The meeting is part of the so-called tripartite forum between Spain, Britain and Gibraltar which avoids the issue of sovereignty and instead focuses on issues of concern to the roughly 30,000 residents of the 6.5 square-kilometre (2.6 square mile) territory.
A press conference has been scheduled for 6:00 pm. They are expected to announce agreements on greater financial, maritime and judicial co-operation.
Gibraltar has been a source of tension between Spain and Britain, which both belong to the European Union and NATO, since British troops captured the strategic territory at the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea in 1704.
Spain ceded Gibraltar to Britain in 1713 under the Treaty of Utrecht but has long argued that it should be returned to Spanish sovereignty. Britain has said it will not renounce sovereignty against the wishes of Gibraltarians.
In an interview published in The Times of London earlier on Tuesday, Moratinos said Spain would never renounce its claim to sovereignty.
"We are never going to renounce sovereignty of Gibraltar, ever, but what I hope we can do is reach an agreement to resolve this," he said.
Now a haven for tourism, shipping and offshore banking because of its favourable tax laws, Gilbraltar's inhabitants overwhelmingly rejected an Anglo-Spanish proposal for co-sovereignty in a 2002 referendum.
Britain's iconic red telephone booths can be found on the streets of the territory along with pubs with names like the Queen's Head or the Red Lion and most residents are proud to call themselves British.
One political party in Gibraltar urged locals to fly British and Gibraltar flags "like never before" as a display of their "inalienable right to self-determination."
Several British and Gibraltar flags flew from balconies of a major housing estate located right on the territory's border with Spain.
Spain's main opposition conservative Popular Party called Moratinos's visit a "terrible mistake", arguing it could set a precedent for treating Gibraltar as a sovereign state.
Spain's socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero set up the tripartite forum shortly after he came to power in 2004.
The first ministerial level meeting of the forum was held in the southern Spanish city of Cordoba in 2006 while the second was held last year in London.
It has led to better airline connections to Gibraltar, improved mobile connections, easier cross-border traffic and the end to a long-running spat over pension payments to former Spanish dockers on the Rock.
This cooperation contrasts with the situation just a few decades ago. Right-wing General Francisco Franco closed Spain's border with Gibraltar in 1969 in protest at a referendum confirming allegiance to Britain.
The border was not fully reopened until 1985, a decade after Franco's death.
Miliband will meet separately with Moratinos following the tripartite talks in Gibraltar in the nearby city of Jerez de la Frontera.
Date created : 2009-07-21