Residents of the Rock may not be happy with formula to end sovereignty dispute

Britain and Spain have found a formula that promises to end their long quarrel over the future of Gibraltar. But with the frontier gates open again after Madrid's 16-year blockade of ``the Rock,'' and negotiations back on track, it may be half a century before the shape of that future is finally decided.

Discussions in Geneva between the British foreign secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe, and his Spanish counterpart, Fernando Mor'an, held in the wake of the opening of the frontier, have produced an agreement to keep talking.

But Britain has told the Spaniards that sovereignty over Gibraltar, ceded to the British government under the Treaty of Utrecht, 1713, will not be transferred without the agreement of the colony's approximately 29,000 inhabitants.

There's the rub: The people of the Rock show little sign of wanting to be anything but British. Their chief minister, Sir Joshua Hassan, stayed close to Sir Geoffrey's side at the Geneva talks.

This left Mr. Mor'an with little option but to argue his case that Spain should eventually retrieve sovereignty, and to keep iron clamps on his own passionate conviction that the British ought to leave quickly.

One key reason why Spain lifted the blockade imposed in 1969 is that Britain had threatened to block Spain's entry into the European Community if the border remained closed.

Despite the deep belief of nearly all Spaniards that the colony is rightfully theirs, the government in Madrid has accepted that it is better to enter the EC than to wrangle about a rock.

Mor'an was reported to have proposed a 50-year timetable for a transfer of sovereignty, thereby putting the issue so far into the future as to take most of the sting out of the dispute.

But few diplomats believe that once Spain enters the EC its government will be prepared to let the issue drop. That is why Sir Geoffrey was at pains in Geneva to ensure that all future discussions will be well structured. Under the new circumstances at the frontier between Gibraltar and Spain, people of both nationalities will be able to move in and out of Gibraltar without difficulty. But this in itself is making Gibraltarians apprehensive.

Rock residents will welcome a tide of tourists to their tiny colony, because that will improve the Gibraltar economy, drained in recent years by the running down of the naval dockyard.

But many Gibraltarians believe that unemployed Spaniards in the depressed La Linea area adjacent to the border will also stream in, demanding work.

Gibraltar's left-wing opposition has attacked the arrangements. The opposition -- which increased its representation in the 15-member local Parliament from one seat to seven last year -- argues that the reopening of the frontier may not mean an end to the bad times at all.

Sir Joshua says he can contain his opponents while arrangements are being worked out to reduce remaining tensions between the colony and Spain.

The Geneva talks produced agreement to set up working groups to deal with cross-border cooperation in aviation, tourism, and transport. The British and Spanish foreign ministers plan to meet annually to review the groups' progress.

But the ministers are reserving for themselves the issue of sovereignty. At first, Spain wanted a special Anglo-Spanish committee on sovereignty, but Britain resisted this. Instead, argument about a transfer of sovereignty will be handled at the political level. The next meeting between Sir Geoffrey and Mor'an is planned for the end of next year in Madrid. -- 30 -- {et

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