Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)



  Chairman: Mr Jones, Mr Hill, we welcome you, alongside the Minister. Mr Mackinlay, please.

Mr Mackinlay

  1. In recent documentation, since we last discussed this with you, Minister, we now know that there is a disparity as to the figures for the border frustrations, between those of the Gibraltar Government and those which you have supplied to the House of Commons, or the Foreign Office has. One, why was there not spelled out to us that there was a different accounting procedure; and, two, will you now ensure that—I want to get the actual wording here—every frustration, every instance where border delays are raised, these will be recorded, that there should be parity of accounting? I wonder if I could just pause there.
  (Mr Vaz) If there is a disparity, and if it is because of a different method of accounting, I will certainly look into making sure that there is one method of accounting which will be acceptable to the Committee. But, as far as I am concerned, the principle remains the same, border delays remain a problem. This morning, I met with the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, who is in London over the next week, and I discussed this and other issues with him. We are constantly aware of problems that it causes, and we have raised representations, as the Committee knows. When I went to Gibraltar, I did go to the border area and I watched what was happening and I took out my stop-watch and I realised it was unacceptable.

  2. In his address to the Spanish Parliament, on 8 February, the Foreign Affairs Minister reiterated—I think it is a lie—that Gibraltar were tardy on implementing European Union Directives. Now, in your Foreign Office note, you do not seem vigorously to rebut that; if not, why not? If there are still some deficiencies, what are they? But, assuming that the compliance of Gibraltar is satisfactory, from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's point of view, why has there not been a challenge to the Spanish Foreign Minister to demand that he says where there is a deficiency? Gibraltar has been introduced, we have not challenged the Foreign Minister, to say, "What are you on about?", and why have we not; if there is some deficiency, what is it?
  (Mr Vaz) As far as we are concerned, Gibraltar is doing its best to implement whatever is required of it; if there are any examples where countries feel that they are not doing so then it should be brought to our attention. I think, if I were to comment on every single speech that was made by Foreign Ministers to their various Parliaments then we would be here late into the night.


  3. Minister, the point, surely, is this. We have a speech made by the Spanish Foreign Minister, not an official, it is made in respect of a country for which we have responsibility, in respect of their external relations, there are clear errors in that speech. Are we making it our business to correct those errors?
  (Mr Vaz) Of course, if there are any circumstances in which Gibraltar has not acted properly, of course we have made it clear.

Mr Mackinlay

  4. Yes, but, really, that is not good enough, is it, because he actually spells out—I am just trying to find the relevant reference—but he actually alleges that Gibraltar is not fulfilling the European Union Directives. And the record will show, you used the words "doing its best"; well, Gibraltar is either doing it to the agreement of the United Kingdom Government or there is a deficiency. Your own wording, actually, is the kind of thing which gives credence to this thing which is peddled by the Spanish Foreign Minister to an audience, namely, the Spanish Parliament. Can I ask you this way, are you, this afternoon, satisfied that Gibraltar is complying, to the satisfaction of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as regards its European Union legislation?
  (Mr Vaz) All countries have issues where they have not implemented and not acted upon particular Directives. What the Spanish Foreign Minister says to the Spanish Parliament, Mr Mackinlay, is a matter for him. I am not responsible for his speech. The Government of Gibraltar is responsible for implementing the Directives that it is responsible for, and I am satisfied that it is complying in the best way it can.

  5. So you see no need to challenge the Foreign Minister, saying, "What are your complaints, Foreign Minister?"?
  (Mr Vaz) What is it you want me to do to the Spanish Foreign Minister, Mr Mackinlay?

  6. He is the equivalent of you, or senior, he says to the Spanish Parliament something which we deem to be untrue; in an earlier session, you actually referred to the fact that a French official wrote to Honourable Member Fabricant, rebutting things which were said in the British Parliament. Why do you not challenge him on something which was said wrongly in the Spanish Parliament?
  (Mr Vaz) If Mr Mackinlay feels so strongly about this particular speech, I will certainly reread it, and if I think that it merits any further action I will consider what to do.


  7. But he has made a specific allegation that Gibraltar is not complying with European Union Company Law Directives; you are saying that that is not correct. Have you corrected Senor Pique?
  (Mr Vaz) No. Mr Chairman, I think the record will show that I did not refer to a particular Directive. If you wish me to look into a particular Directive, what I will do is, I shall seek the views of the Governor of Gibraltar, and if this is untrue I will decide what further action to take.

Mr Mackinlay

  8. But can I, for the record, just read this; this is what he said: "If its financial centre has blossomed, and there are more than 80,000 companies registered, that is thanks to the permissiveness and opaqueness of its financial and company system, given that, among other factors, they have not transposed the main Community Directives in this field." Now, it is a matter of record that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office actually insisted, put in, the regulatory arrangements in Gibraltar; you have done it. This is traducing not just Gibraltar which I resent, but is traducing you, and throughout all these years which we have been on this Committee, it is to our amazement that you allow the Spanish Government not to traduce the Government of Gibraltar but the Foreign and Commonwealth Office; one, such as this, on financial regulations, and also they do it in respect of the police force, which is under the control of the Governor, who is under the control of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, not the home Government?
  (Mr Vaz) Well, Mr Chairman, I have said to Mr Mackinlay—I see he is getting concerned about the speech, and obviously he is passionate about it, he is a great friend of Gibraltar—I will look at it again, and if I feel I have been traduced, as he puts it, I will decide on what action I should take.

Sir John Stanley

  9. Minister, almost two years ago, your Department submitted a memorandum to this Committee, in its first Gibraltar inquiry in this Parliament, and, in paragraph 45 of your memorandum, which was considered by the Committee on 30 March 1999, it says this: "We have complained to the Spanish Government several times since February", that, of course, is February 1999, "about delays, stressing that they are excessive and unjustifiable, as well as counterproductive. We have also pressed the European Commission on the need to remind Spain of her EU obligations for free movement of people. We believe that Spain must honour her assurance that she does not question the right of Gibraltarians to freedom of movement within the EU." That is, as I said, effectively, two years ago. And the Committee, in that report, pressed the Government to take more action with the EU, to get the Commission to discharge its proper responsibilities, in making very, very forceful representations to Spain, and, if the Commission refused to do so, we urged you to use the powers which are available to the British Government under Article 227 of the EC Treaty. In the latest series of questions, which we have put to you and to which you have replied, in memorandum GIBF 4d, for ease of identification, which is in front of us today, you say this, in response to our question, "What is the Government's policy on the invocation of Article 227 in respect of border delays?", and your reply is this: "The Government has noted the Committee's recommendation that it take action under Article 227 of the EC Treaty. Such action is extremely rare (since the EC Treaty confers primary responsibility for the enforcement of Community law on the Commission). Since we understand that the Commission is now taking up the matter with Spain, it would be premature for the UK to consider the possibility of action under Article 227 at this stage." Will you explain to us, Minister, why it has taken, apparently, two years after these intolerable delays, as your predecessor, Ms Joyce Quin, made quite clear in her own evidence to the Committee, why has it taken two years for the EC Commission actually to start taking up this matter with Spain; is that not absolutely intolerable, and, indeed, a dereliction of duty by the EC Commission?
  (Mr Vaz) It is not a dereliction of duty. We have referred this matter to the European Commission, as we promised to do. They have opened a fiche, in respect of infraction proceedings, and they are in correspondence, which, as you know, infraction proceedings, by their own nature, and these whole matters are confidential, but they have opened correspondence with the Spanish authorities and they are quite clear what our views are on this matter.

  10. Why did it take two years?
  (Mr Vaz) The fact is, it is happening, and I cannot give Sir John an explanation as to why it took two years. The fact is, we know that this matter has been a cause of concern, but we also know that it has been used, as I saw for myself, when I went down to the border, when they see a visitor there and they know that something is happening, they tend to make it even longer for people. And I share the huge frustration of those who wish to cross the borders, and we have made this clear to Spanish Ministers and others. But those proceedings have begun, the fiche has been opened, and we expect action to be taken.

  11. Are you aware, Minister, that it is frequently indicated to this Committee that Gibraltar does not loom at all significantly in the European policy of the present Government, and that the present Government is much more concerned about its relations with the Spanish Government, and Gibraltar, for that purpose, is regarded as something which is genuflected towards but is not made the subject of any serious defence, as far as its legal rights are concerned?
  (Mr Vaz) That is simply untrue. We take the issue of Gibraltar very seriously indeed. Sir John, it occupies an enormous amount of time of officials, and, indeed, ministers. This morning, I had a meeting with the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, at 24 hours' notice, he asked to see me, and I went and saw him and we had a discussion about issues concerned with Gibraltar; he is on the telephone to Mr Hill, who is our senior official, Mr Jones, on these matters, on a weekly basis. We have an excellent Governor out there, whom I spoke to at 2.15 today. This occupies a lot of ministerial time. And we care for Gibraltar and the people of Gibraltar. So please do not believe that that is not something that does occupy our time.

  12. Are you prepared to give this Committee any assurance that the British Government will use its Article 227 powers if the Commission fail to produce the requisite freeing of the border between Spain and Gibraltar?
  (Mr Vaz) It is very difficult giving you assurances about something that is going to happen in the future. I can give you this assurance, we will pursue this now, we will pursue the Commission, and make sure that what we have requested is achieved.

Mr Maples

  13. Minister, you probably share my view that the Spanish Government does not set about this in a particularly constructive way; they ought to be wooing the people of Gibraltar rather than threatening them the whole time, and, clearly, if there is going to be a solution to this problem it lies along those lines, rather than either side trying to browbeat the other. I suppose both countries could say there were much bigger issues between us than Gibraltar, but it does seem that the Spanish Government is prepared to make quite a lot of this issue and we are not prepared to make very much of it, and then they are prepared to deny telephone lines, effectively, to run a blockade on the border, but we are not even prepared to take infraction proceedings. Do you not think that this imbalance in our respective approaches to this problem encourages them to think that their bullying tactics might work; whereas, if we made it clear that those will not, by instituting infraction proceedings and then saying, "Now let's sit down and try to find . . ." I think the solution is probably a regional one in that part of Spain, including Gibraltar. But if we did that we would be more likely to make progress on the substantive issues, but at the moment we are sort of sending them the wrong signal?
  (Mr Vaz) No; we are sending them the right signals.

  14. Well, what makes you think that, because they are continuing to run a blockade and we do not seem to be making any progress?
  (Mr Vaz) It is not a blockade. These delays are unacceptable, and we have done what is required by the law that we should do, we have referred it to the Commission. We have sent these signals, very clearly, to the Spanish Government and they understand our position; we have got the balance right.

  15. It is, in a sense, what Sir John Stanley asked you already. Our understanding is correct, is it, that the United Kingdom does have the right to take proceedings on its own, under Article 227 of the Treaty; if it decided to do so, it has the right to do that?
  (Mr Vaz) Yes.

  16. A legal right to do that. And, of course, Gibraltar and Gibraltar citizens are citizens of the United Kingdom, and Gibraltar is part of the European Union, so it would seem perfectly within our rights to do that. What I am suggesting to you is that your assertion that we are sending the right signals is not being interpreted by the Spanish Government in the way which seems to be making any progress at all. And I suggest to you, again, that by not taking more robust action we are actually sending the wrong signal, and that the Spanish are encouraged in continuing the policy that they are continuing, which seems to be to try to browbeat us or Gibraltar in some way into a solution?
  (Mr Vaz) I disagree. I think we are taking the right approach.

  17. What effect do you think it has had on the Spanish Government, our approach?
  (Mr Vaz) I think it has had a positive effect, they are aware that we are serious, when we said we would involve the Commission; we did not have to involve the Commission, but we did, and a fiche has been opened and the dialogue has commenced.

  18. At Nice, the Spanish got a derogation, or dispensation, which was a very considerable advantage to them, which was that the removal of a veto on the allocation of Structural Funds was delayed until 2007, I think I have expressed that correctly, in accordance with whatever the documents said. And, of course, if it had gone to QMV now, rather than in 2007, there is a good possibility the Spanish would not have been getting so much out of the Structural Funds. That must have been a very considerable concession to them, and I wonder if, when that concession was made, these issues about Gibraltar were raised, and why we did not extract some similar concession in exchange for that, since we pay a huge amount of the Structural Fund budget?
  (Mr Vaz) All kinds of issues are discussed at European Council meetings. I can assure you that, when we went in to bat for Britain, we put the best foot forward and we did what was right for Britain.

  19. In relation to the Spanish request that the QMV on Structural Funds be delayed until 2007, did we raise the issue of Gibraltar and possible infraction proceedings under 227?
  (Mr Vaz) We discussed all kinds of issues. Mr Maples, you would not expect me to tell you what was discussed in confidential conversations between the Prime Ministers of our two countries.

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