Madrid opens Gibraltar border, seeks to woo Gibraltarians to become Spaniards

Gibraltar travelers will no longer need to take a three-hour trip via Tangiers to get from Spain to Gibraltar. Starting Tuesday, the border will be completely open for the first time in 15 years. The lifting of restrictions coincides with talks on the same day between Britain and Spain, following an agreement in November to discuss sovereignty over the Rock.

Both events mark a new stage in the long negotiations over what is sometimes called Europe's last colony.

The Rock of Gibraltar, is 2.25 square miles, more than 1,000 miles by sea from the United Kingdom and almost within sight of Africa.

Living in one of Europe's most densely populated areas, Gibraltar's 30,000 inhabitants -- including 10,000 British servicemen -- is a melting pot of Genovese, Maltese, Sephardic Jews, Spaniards, Indians, and Greeks. Its economy is based on Britain's naval base here.

``To be enjoyed forever'' -- stated the Treaty of Utrecht that gave Britain control of the Rock in 1713. Spain has challenged that right ever since. During the Franco dictatorship, Spain went before the United Nations to try to regain the Rock. As Britain resisted discussing sovereignty, Spain started imposing restrictions on Gibraltar. General Franco closed the border in 1969.

The coming of Spanish democracy in 1978 led to new talks. Yet a 1980 agreement to open the border met with stalemate, partly due to Britain's war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands. Spain's newly elected Socialist government partially opened the border in 1982 for Spaniards and Gibraltarians to walk across. Last November's Spanish-British agreement finally broke the deadlock with the decision to discuss sovereignty.

The breakthrough comes with a new realistic attitude on the part of Spain. With a pending entry into the Common Market, Spain realizes it must normalize relations with its partners. Failure to lift restrictions could mean a British veto on Spain's EC membership.

Military cooperation will also be rendered easier for the two NATO members. And it is felt that the decision to discuss sovereignty along with EC entry will help Prime Minister Felipe Gonz'alez in persuading Spaniards to remain in NATO when a promised referendum comes up in 1986.

With the understanding that Gibraltarians' wishes must be respected, Spain also realizes that the negotiations will be long. So far, inhabitants of the Rock have overwhelmingly expressed the desire to remain British.

And for now, Spaniards and Gibraltarians will be free to circulate, settle, and work in either territory.

Spain will now have to woo Gibraltar and work to dissipate the distrust that grew up with the blockade.

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