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Paul Johnston

Ambassador to Ireland

Part of UK in Sweden

2nd September 2013

Gibraltar – The Principle of Self-determination

Just before Christmas 2001 I was asked to undertake a special diplomatic mission. The then UK government wanted to explore the possibility of an agreement to share sovereignty with Spain over Gibraltar. Gibraltar has been British for precisely three centuries, since 1713 when Spain ceded Gibraltar to the UK as part of the Treaty of Utrecht which ended the War of Spanish Succession.

The idea in 2001/2 was to end this bilateral dispute between the UK and Spain – but only if the people of Gibraltar, whose right to self-determination is central to our policy, supported it.

It didn’t happen. The people of Gibraltar overwhelmingly opposed the concept. The government of Spain was not prepared to reach the agreement that the UK government at the time felt it could recommend.

A decade later, the United Kingdom’s relationship with Spain still matters to both countries. Millions of British people travel to Spain each year on holiday, we have a valuable commercial relationship and we work together to address common challenges like terrorism.

But we cannot turn a blind eye when the people of Gibraltar are threatened, or subjected to disproportionate and illegitimate measures such as excessive border controls.  This has been happening recently. It’s not justified and it has to stop.

Gibraltar has its own democratically elected Government, fully independent from UK Government, and Gibraltar’s 2006 Constitution affords Gibraltar full autonomy for its internal affairs.  The people of Gibraltar are proud British citizens, with their own uniquely Gibraltarian identity and culture – and their own language.

They have repeatedly and overwhelmingly expressed their wish to remain British, most recently in the 2002 referendum where over 98% of people voted in favour of remaining British.  The UK respects that.  We will not enter into negotiations on British sovereignty over Gibraltar without their consent.

With the Government of Gibraltar we have worked throughout to maintain good neighbourly relations with Spain.  We know that thousands of Spanish workers commute to Gibraltar every day for work.  In fact Gibraltar contributes one in six jobs in the local region.  Spain’s actions are affecting the daily lives of its own citizens as well as Gibraltarians.

We want to see any disputes over Gibraltar with Spain tackled through dialogue.  But the Spanish Government rejected the Trilateral Forum for Dialogue, which had been successful for a number of years and had led to benefits for communities on both sides of the border. The UK and Gibraltar remain strongly committed to trilateral talks in the long term. We have made the offer of ad hoc talks, involving all relevant parties without getting hung up on formats, but this must be with the involvement and consent of the Government of Gibraltar.

The people of Gibraltar, like the people of the Falklands, have repeatedly and overwhelmingly expressed their wish to remain under British sovereignty and we will respect their right of self determination – a right enshrined in the United Nations Charter.

For the people of Gibraltar, day by day, this is not about sovereignty, however – it is about free movement.  The free movement of persons within the territory of the European Union Member States is a fundamental right guaranteed to EU citizens and their family members by the Treaties.

Recent border delays appear to relate to an ongoing fishing dispute and to an artificial reef created by the Government of Gibraltar to improve fish stocks. The Government of Gibraltar has made clear their intention to resolve the fishing dispute.  On 5 August, Gibraltar’s elected Chief Minister, Fabian Picardo, said publicly that sustainable Spanish fishing will be allowed to resume in British Gibraltar Territorial Waters.

Whatever the background, deliberate disruption of border flows into and out of Gibraltar is unacceptable and has no place at a border between EU partners. This has a direct impact on the prosperity and wellbeing of EU citizens on both sides of the border, including the thousands  of Spanish workers who travel to Gibraltar each day.

We therefore welcomed the news that the Commission has agreed to send a fact-finding mission to Gibraltar to monitor the delays at the Gibraltar/Spain border.

Throughout we have responded proportionately. We value the bilateral relationship we have with Spain.  We have made clear that we would prefer to resolve our differences via political means and to pursue an ad hoc dialogue process involving the Government of Gibraltar.  We would welcome Spain’s constructive engagement in such a process.

1 comment on “Gibraltar – The Principle of Self-determination

  1. Dear Paul,
    in my opinion is esp. THIS report of you urgently needed. I ´ve heard and read via TV but also the so-called “Print-Medias” so much false informations about the current situation a.) between Spain and Great Britain and c. about, i.e. “Neo -Colonialism” of the British. ´Till a certain point , it makes me angry. For you can read (The Observer) unfair and not very true “facts” about the historical relationship between the above mentioned nations. E.g.: The from you mentioned and described 3 centuries became suddenly “more as one….”.BBC London itself doesn ´feel the need via their (History – Channel ) to draw attention to the fact, that ALL people of Gibraltar have the right for self-determination. It ´s even at # 1 of the UN-CHARTA! In your words : This right is CENTRAL to our policy. I Think it has good reason for such a policy. Most remarkable to me are your lines that “.. we want to see any disputes over Gibraltar with Spain tackled through DIALOGUE…” For to me only talks /negotiations/dialoges can help , support and solve problems between countries and people too. And still today countries are consisting of inhabitants , of people. So there ´s nothing if disputes are happening from time to time. The big question is (you also wrote this in a similar way at the end “.. we would welcome Spain ´s CONSTRUCTIVE engagement in such a process…”) to me only: Do we still really ignore the wish, the right of this self-determination of the Gibraltarian-People or are we willing to support , so that they can live in peace with their Spanish- Neighbours and under British Sovereignity ? Like they wanted it?
    Best wishes, Ingo-Steven Wais, Stuttgart/Deutschland

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About Paul Johnston

Paul Johnston joined the UK Civil Service in 1990, working for the Ministry of Defence initially. He has served in Paris and New York and has also had a wide…

Paul Johnston joined the UK Civil Service in 1990, working for the Ministry of Defence initially.

He has served in Paris and New York and has also had a wide range of political and security roles in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London. Paul joined the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1993 as Desk Officer for Bosnia. As part of this role he was also Private Secretary to EU negotiator Lord Owen and his representative on Bosnia Contact Group.

His first foreign posting was to Paris in 1995-99 as Second Secretary Political. He was Private Secretary to the Ambassador and latterly part of the UK delegation to the Kosovo Rambouillet negotiations. Then he returned to London as Head of the Kosovo Policy Team, leading work on post-conflict policy in the EU, NATO, UN and G8.

Before his second overseas posting to New York in 2005, Paul held a variety of other EU policy and security appointments in London, such as Head of European Defence Section between 2000-01 and Head of Security Policy Department between 2002-04.

As Head of the Political Section in UKMIS New York, he advised on major policy issues for the UK on the Security Council and the UN World Summit, including the UK EU Presidency in 2005.

Paul returned to London in 2008 as Director, International Security for the FCO. He was responsible for policy on UN, NATO, European Security, arms control and disarmament, human rights and good governance.

Paul was British Ambassador to Sweden from August 2011 to August 2015 and then was Deputy Permanent Representative to NATO.

He was UK Ambassador to the EU for Political and Security affairs from 2017 to January 2020 and became Ambassador to Ireland in September 2020.