Spain chips away at Rock of Gibraltar

Winston Churchill said once that this enclave on the southern tip of Spain would remain a British crown colony as long as there was one Barbary ape left alive on it.

The statement was made with a sense o f permanence. The apes have for hundreds of years been as firmly rooted in Gibraltar as the huge rock face that towers over the town and looks out toward the meeting of Atlantic and Mediterranean known as the "Strait."

Today, the apes, far from dying, are multiplying. Their little ones crouch like rabbits in the bushes waiting for cars to bring them tourists and peanuts.

Downtown "Britishness" is stamped on every street corner: policemen in "bobby" helmets, and poorly lit cafes serving tea and bars of Cadbury's chocolate. There are whole areas torn out of some picture postcard image of an English seaside resort.

At the end of Gibraltar's Winston Churchill Avenue the Spanish frontier gates remain closed; they have been since 1969, when Gen. Francisco Franco decided to impose border restrictions to pressure the local population into accepting Spanish sovereignty. The measures had adverse results, provoking the Gibraltarians into an entrenched anti-Spanish position. Last February, in local elections, Gibraltarians voted overwhelmingly -- as they have always done -- to have nothing to do with Spain.

But to describe Gibralatar as a British colony in both name and spirit is an oversimplification.

Last April, following a meeting in Lisbon, British Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington and Spanish Foreign Minister Marcelino Oreja agreed to resume full negotiations on the future of Gibraltar. At the same time the Spanish government agreed to lift border restrictions as a first step toward creating a climate of consensus necessary for a more lasting agreement.

The Lisbon summit was warmly welcomed by Gibraltar's Chief Minister, Sir Joshua Hassan, and by the leader of the opposition Democratic Party of British Gibralter, Sir Peter Isola.There is now a noticeable thaw in Gibraltarian attitudes toward Spain.

Suddenly the Spanish influence on the Rock, which has always coexisted with the Britishness, appeared to acquire fresh relevance: the bobbies with their Andalucian accents, Gibraltarians relishing both pubs and flamencos, and above all the large quantities of Spanish goods, which, though officially restricted from entering since the border, closure, nevertheless find their way into Gibraltarian homes in many and indirect ways.

"The Spanish fruit is on its way to England on a British boat, which before leaving the Bay of Cadiz, turns round and drops anchor in Gibraltar. Officially it's in for repairs. Unofficially it's unloading its cargo just like the old days before the frontier closed." This is how a young Gibraltarian wholesaler described his method of keeping the Spanish connection going.

His openness would have been unthinkable less than two years ago when Gibraltarians generally were trying their best to give the impression of a people under a cruel and unjust seige.

But Gibraltarian willingness for some kind of rapprochement with Spain has begun to dwindle again amid signs that the Spanish government is backtracking on the Lisbon agreement.

In Lisbon both Mr. Oreja and Lord Carrington stressed that the frontier would open on or around June 1. That date has long since passed. Says Sir Joshua Hassan, "It's going to be a long hot summer. I can't see the frontier opening before the autumn."

His sentiments are aptly reflected in Gibraltar's latest summer "craze": brightly colored T-shirts with the inscription "They're opening the frontier . . . manana."

According to Gibraltarian officials the Spanish government is trying to obtain specific political guarantees as a prerequisite to opening the frontier. The most important of those is that Spanish workers should be granted the same rights and privileges accorded to Gibraltarians.

But Madrid's interest in Gibraltar rests perhaps less on strictly nationalistic lines than on the wider aspects of NATO and the European Community (EC). Spanish defense officials stress the need for a growing role for Spain in the supervision of the Strait. In the case of the EC, Britain has made it clear that Spain cannot even begin to think of signing the treaty of accession while having a mini-Berlin Wall blocking off the subjects of a fellow EC member.

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