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Blair caught between Rock and hard talks; Whitehall blockage: Police give protesters a cool reception.

Byline: Jon Smith

Tony Blair and his Spanish counterpart Jose Maria Aznar last night insisted talks over Gibraltar between the two nations remained on track in a 'positive and sensible atmosphere'.

Mr Aznar denied the negotiations had now reached crisis point, but the two leaders refused to divulge details of their discussions on The Rock during their 90-minute meeting in No 10.

Mr Blair's official spokesman acknowledged the talks had now entered a difficult phase, with Spain refusing to cede its claims to sovereignty and insisting on joint control of the sensitive UK military bases on Gibraltar.

But Mr Blair said: 'We discussed the issue of Gibraltar, where we agreed the talks would carry on, and indeed they have been carrying on, in a positive and sensible atmosphere. These talks will continue.'

The two governments have set themselves a deadline of early summer to try to resolve the long-running dispute.

Britain wants a lasting settlement, guarantees of British citizenship for Gibraltar's 30,000 residents and their families, an end to Spanish border and trade harassment and authority over the defence establishments maintained. Mr Blair refused to be drawn any further on yesterday's talks, saying: 'I have got absolutely nothing to add to what I said earlier. The talks are continuing. They take place in a positive atmosphere.' He added: 'Of course Britain and Spain have their respective positions but there is a process that began with the Brussels process in 1984.

'The talks are taking place in a perfectly positive and constructive atmosphere and I really don't think it's sensible to say any more.'

The Brussels process has been a series of on-off negotiations between the two governments to try to resolve the issue, with Britain bound by a 1969 agreement to subject any final agreement to a referendum of Gibraltarians. Asked whether there was now a crisis in the talks, Mr Aznar said: 'Quite honestly, I don't think it's proper to talk or use the term crisis to describe the situation. We have had this on the table since 1713.'

The date refers to the Treaty of Utrecht when Spain ceded Gibraltar to the UK in return for a promise that Britain would offer the Rock back if it ever wanted to relinquish it.

Mr Aznar added: 'We are also very aware of the difficulties we will face.'

But he said the talks were 'very positive, very constructive'.

The Tories have called for the UK to pull out of the talks and Gibraltar's chief minister Peter Caruana has refused to take part in them. Shadow foreign secretary Michael Ancram said: 'The statement after today's talks adds nothing to public knowledge of the negotiations being carried out behind closed doors about Gibraltar's future sovereignty.'

CAPTION(S):

Ice cream sellers blocked Whitehall with their vans in protest at Westminster Council who, the protesters claim, have revoked all their trading licences and will confiscate their vans if they are caught trading.; Tony Blair and his Spanish counterpart Jose Maria Aznar at a news conference in Downing Street
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:May 21, 2002
Words:505
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