London — Britain and Spain have cleared the way to an agreement that promises to end their centuries-long dispute about the future of Gibraltar. The two governments agreed Tuesday to hold talks about the future of the Rock , including the question of British control - the issue which has persistently soured relations between London and Madrid.
Until now, Britain has refused to talk about sovereignty over Gibraltar and its 30,000 inhabitants. It is believed, however, that an agreement is on the horizon that promises to resolve the conflict over which country should enjoy the legal right to manage Gibraltar's affairs.
Spain closed the border between Gibraltar and the Spanish mainland in 1969 to protest Britain's insistence that the wishes of Gibraltarians, who had voted to remain British, must be respected.
The dispute has created problems for Spain's application to join the European Community, with Britain saying it could not fully support the application so long as the border remained closed.
Four years ago, following negotiations in Portugal, Spain agreed to reopen the border as part of a timetable leading to negotiations on future political control of Gibraltar.
Spain went back on the agreement, but now it seems that the Portugal package will be implemented.
The border will be reopened under the agreement made between Spanish Foreign Minister Fernando Moran Lopez and British Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe, who met in Brussels. Residents of Gibraltar will be able to pass into Spain through the currently padlocked gates starting in February.
Talks will then open between the two governments with the aim of protecting the rights of Gibraltarians traveling in Spain and Spaniards who wish to enter the colony.
Gibraltar has been a British colony since 1704. Ever since then Madrid has demanded its return.
Until a few years ago, Gibraltarians - who regard themselves as more British than the British - were able to depend on a Royal Navy dockyard for jobs and general prosperity.
They continued to say no to Spain's sovereignty demands, leaving Britain little option but to respect their wishes.
The advent of democracy in Spain, and a decision to close the dockyard, offered hope of a better relationship between Madrid and London. Britain welcomes Spain's application to join the European Community.
Spain has made it clear in private that in the coming sovereignty negotiations it will not demand immediate control. A transitional period of as long as 30 years has been mentioned.
If Spain were to try to demand a short transitional period, Britain would be in a position to veto Madrid's EC application. The target date for Spanish entry to the EC is January 1986.
In Gibraltar, indications are that the people are less anxious than they used to be about undue influence on their tiny territory by Spain.
The colony's chief minister, Sir Joshua Hassan, had been in London earlier this month for talks and returned home apparently well pleased that any deal between Britain and Spain would protect the interests of his people.