On Tuesday the new Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, met his British Conservative counterpart, David Cameron, holding the briefest of meetings at Downing Street. Apart from the security helicopters hovering overhead and the police outriders the tourists gathered in Whitehall had no idea anybody important was coming or going.
The meeting was important for both men because it was about the economy and not Gibraltar. Spain and Britain along with 10 other EU nations have sent a joint letter to Brussels calling for urgent measures to be adopted to stimulate economic growth.
Spain is in the euro zone, Britain is out. Yet both economies are embattled and whilst both Rajoy’s and Cameron’s administrations have grasped the public austerity nettle they want to see flexibility and liberalisation in the markets to help them in the quest for the all important goal of economic growth.
Rajoy had another message too: and no it wasn’t Gibraltar. His government has introduced a labour reform package which on Sunday led to widespread street protests in Spain. The Partido Popular leader had to make it clear to his own country, London and the wider world that he wasn’t for turning and sorting out the economy is his primary goal.
It is ironic that Gibraltar’s chief minister Fabian Picardo should have jetted in to London later on the same day because he has also stressed this simple fact. There is only one item on Spain’s political agenda and that is the economic crisis that is both engulfing the euro nations but also his country. Spaniards couldn’t give a hoot about Gibraltar: they want jobs, they want to be paid, they don’t want to be evicted from their homes and still owe a fortune to the banks, they want to be able to feed their families – they want to live in dignity.
So was Gibraltar on the agenda at Downing Street? Of course it was. It was for the very simple reason that no Spanish prime minister or his foreign minister can meet his British counterpart without Gibraltar being discussed. They know it’s the wrong issue on the wrong day but are equally aware that if it is not raised they will get it in the neck politically and from the media when they get home. The Spanish public couldn’t care a toss about Gibraltar right now but that is neither here nor there.
It was the wrong issue on the wrong day in Downing Street because David Cameron was as clear as he could possibly be in re-stating Britain’s support for Gibraltar and the right of Gibraltarians to self-determine their own future. When he made that statement he also included the Falklands and I have pointed out in print here before that it was Buenos Aires that was the prime recipient of that message. Britain cannot give an inch on Gibraltar without giving Argentina hope of a deal on the Malvinas. As long as Argentina sabre-rattles on this issue Gibraltar is safe.
Which brings us nicely to Spain’s new big idea on Gibraltar. It wants meaningful and constructive talks with Britain over the future of Gibraltar. It wants the Campo de Gibraltar to be included in those talks. It wants Gibraltar to sit alongside the UK delegation as the Campo representatives will sit alongside its own: so it will be two flags with two supporting delegations. William Hague quickly but politely kicked that in to touch which means both London and Madrid can now get back to concentrating on the economy as Fabian Picardo said they would and should.