Spain's agreement to end its 12-year blockade of the British colony of Gibraltar could end the long-festering dispute between the two nations over the future of the Rock and hasten Spain's entry into the European Community (EC).
Spain's scheduled April 20 reopening of its border with Gibraltar coincides with Britain's agreement to resume on the same day talks at foreign minister level in Lisbon on Gibraltar's political future.
In return for the border opening, Britain has also promised to support Spain's application for EC membership. That application is bogged down largely because of doubts of the EC's Mediterranean members (particularly France) about the effect on their economies of competition from yet another Mediterranean agricultural economy.
For Spain, Gibraltar - in British hands since 1704 - is part of its national territory and should revert to Spanish sovereignty. The British position is that this cannot happen without the consent of Gibraltar's 29,000 inhabitants. In a referendum in 1969, they voted overwhelmingly to keep their ties with Britain.
There is, however, a provision in the agreement negotiated during Spanish Prime Minister Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo's visit to London last week which rouses some anxiety in Gibraltar. Under this provision, Spanish workers will be allowed to take jobs in Gibraltar once the border is reopened and (like other nationals of non-member countries of EC) will be permitted to remain in the colony overnight.
Once Spain becomes a fellow-member with Britain in the EC, these workers will get more favored status. What Gibraltarians fear is that Spain will encourage enough of them to establish themselves in Gibraltar to swing the vote in Spain's favor in any future referendum to decide the colony's eventual status.
Together with its application for admission to the EC, Spain has lodged with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) an application for membership in that alliance - and all 15 members of NATO have agreed to consider it favorably. Joint membership in NATO could provide the framework for Britain and Spain to work out an interim status for Gibraltar, a key base at the entrance to the Mediterranean.
The United States supports Spain's membership while the Soviet Union opposes it.
The snag about such a route, however, is that NATO is a more divisive issue in Spain than is the EC. There is a broad Spanish consensus for membership in the economic grouping. But there is hostility to NATO membership from not only the extreme right and the extreme left, but also from the Socialists, the main opposition party in the Spanish parliament. Like some other European Socialists, they lean toward neutralism.
The mood of a section of the Spanish military makes Gibraltar a much more challenging and emotional issue for Spain's fledgling democracy than it is for the government in postimperial Britain. A residue from the Franco era of right-wing extremists in the Spanish officer class rocked the country with a coup attempt last February. And only last month, 99 captains, lieutenants, and sergeants stationed in the Madrid area signed a manifesto defending those who had tried to stage the coup.
To hard-liners, probably nothing short of immediate Spanish sovereignty is acceptable. Though the hard-liners lack broad support in their contempt for Spanish democracy, the question of Gibraltar involves Spain's ever-sensitive national pride. Prime Minister Calvo Sotelo knows he cannot afford to let the right-wing extremists adopt it as a popular issue of their own.
One reason why the Spanish government wants to bring Spain into both the EC and NATO is to fit the country into an European setting less conducive than its present isolated status to right-wing plotting and military coups.
For one thing, the Spanish military might be made aware - particularly after Poland - that the threat of Soviet communism in Eastern Europe is more serious than the threat of communism within Spain itself.