London — Britain and Spain are beginning to edge toward a political compromise that promises to end their long dispute over Gibraltar and, as a bonus, strengthen the West's military posture at the gateway to the Mediterranean.
Talks between British Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington and his Spanish counterpart, Jose Pedro Perez-Llorca, have set the scene for more detailed negotiations over the future of the Rock.
And as an essential preliminary they have smoothed over the row that blew up last month between London and Madrid over the decision of Prince Charles and his bride to begin their Mediterranean honeymoon cruise from Gibraltar.
On the surface, the problem posed by Gibraltar is as hard as the granite the colony is built on. Eleven years ago the late General Francisco Franco closed and padlocked the huge iron gates on the narrow isthmus between the Rock and the Spanish mainland. They have stayed shut ever since.
Spanish workers who used to commute to Gibraltar can no longer go there. The colony has tried to build up its economy in isolation from Spain, and its 30,000 inhabitants, almost unanimously, have gone on insisting that they are British and not Spanish in the least.
Meanwhile, the Spanish have continued to help maintain the deadlock by asserting that the Rock is rightfully theirs and must eventually be placed under the sovereignty of the King of Spain.
For a while last year it seemed that the iron gates were about to swing open, following a commitment apparently entered into by the Spanish Foreign Office. But then the Spanish Cabinet had second thoughts after high-ranking officers of the armed forces objected.
They, like Franco nearly a dozen years ago, were incensed by the conviction of Gibraltarians that their hearts are made of stout British oak.
Both Spain and Britain, however, know that there are urgent reasons for resolving the dispute. Spain plans to join NATO soon, and next month the parliament in Madrid will debate the issue.
Spain also wants to become a member of the European Community (EC). But it would not be allowed to do so if the frontier between Gibraltar and the mainland remained closed.
These Spanish aspirations seem to offer the possibility of a breakthrough in the negotiations. Gibraltar is already a military base. It would be a more effective one if Britain and Spain worked together to maintain it, under a NATO umbrella.
Also, given Madrid's EC aspirations, it is conceivable that Britain could suggest that, pending Spanish entry, spaniards on the Rock would enjoy the rights of EC citizens.
The issue of Gibraltarians' "Britishness" would have to be put on one side, but meanwhile some form of shared sovereignty in Gibraltar could be considered.
None of this can happen, Britain is saying, unless and until those gates across the isthmus are unlocked. And of course Madrid knows that Britain has the power to veto her bid for EC membership.
On the British side, there is a disposition to be patient. On the Spanish side, the government has the difficulty of trying to carry right-wing politicians and generals along in a compromise requiring both sides to give some ground.
There again however the NATO aspect holds out the promise of progress. The generals of the Spanish armed forces think Gibraltar should be theirs, but they also are keen to see their country knitted as firmly as possible into the fabric of the Western alliance.
Perhaps a bit of give and take over the future of the Rock will produce military security benefits.
That is the way the NATO defense planners in Brussels see the issue.
To them, Gibraltar's importance as a military base is unquestioned. Its future as part of NATO's defense of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean seems long term.
And there is even something to offer the very British Gibraltarians. If they agree to moderate their patriotic cries just a little, they can be assured of the base continuing -- and being strengthened into the bargain.
And that offers the prospect of greater prosperity for Gibraltar.