`The Rock' no longer stands in way of closer London-Madrid ties. Recent Spain visits by Thatcher and Queen mark historic warming trend.

When Spaniards welcomed Britain's Queen and prime minister in recent visits to their country, it was a sign that Spain had come of age in its relations with an age-old rival. Before Queen Elizabeth arrived, Madrid citizens pulled down posters mounted by young fascists demanding that Britain return Gibraltar to Spanish sovereignty.

For one diplomat the gesture showed that the Spanish no longer needed to prove their national identity with bursts of jingoism. They can openly admire the British Queen and a staunchly conservative Margaret Thatcher, he said, without compromising their own interests on the Gibraltar question and other issues involving Spain's economic and defense ties with the rest of Europe.

During Gen. Francisco Franco's 36-year reign that ended in 1975, it was unthinkable that a British monarch or prime minister would exchange visits with the Spanish dictator. Now both countries have joined the European Community (EC), Spain has joined NATO (though not as a full military participant), and the Gibraltar issue no longer dominates their political agenda.

``These visits show we can talk to Spain about almost anything without Gibraltar becoming a big handicap,'' a British Foreign Office official told the Monitor. For many observers, this change is long overdue.

British experts on Spanish affairs like to point out what the two countries have in common. With active constitutional monarchs, both countries have preserved the aristocratic legacies of two of Europe's greatest empires. Both see themselves on the periphery of continental Europe, separated by geography - the Pyrenees and the English Channel - from the rest of the EC. Both now look to that community for their future while talk of ``joining'' Europe has stirred domestic political debate.

``What unites Britain and Spain is having France in between them,'' quipped one British professor of Spanish studies. In the 1980s, such geopolitics are not as important as they once were. Smooth personal relations among their leaders and a shared interest in Europe have transformed their historical rivalry.

The Queen is said to admire King Juan Carlos, a third cousin, perhaps for his dignified informality, his intervention in an Army coup in 1981, and his nudging Spain into NATO and the EC.

Mrs. Thatcher is said to admire Prime Minister Felipe Gonz'alez M'arquez for his moderate brand of socialism, which includes a supply-side approach to economic growth and job creation for a work force that still has an estimated 20 percent unemployed. Spain's economy is the fastest growing in Western Europe, and its potential for commerce and industrial development is beginning to attract interest from British businessmen.

In a speech alluding to their past imperial glory, the Queen told the Spanish congress two weeks ago that Britain could appreciate the ups and downs of Spanish history.

``Few countries better than Britain can appreciate the sacrifices and elations, the triumphs and disappointments, your nation has endured over the past 500 years,'' the Queen said. She affirmed that both countries' future now lay within NATO and the EC. ``These two great communities of nations enable us to play a role on the world stage.''

In an rare reference to political affairs, the Queen was hopeful that the new mutual understanding between Britain and Spain ``will enable us to deal with the one remaining problem which exists between us.''

That ``one remaining problem'' is Gibraltar, a 21/2-square-mile territory which Britain acquired in the early 18th century when the territory was a strategic outpost at the entrance to the Mediterranean.

Britain now has no interest in retaining the colony, but Mrs. Thatcher says it is up to some 30,000 Gibraltarians to decide their future. The attachment the colonists feel toward Britain has strained Spanish patience.

It is unclear how long London will be willing to maintain connections with inhabitants of the Rock, who in 1967 voted 12,138 to 44 to keep ties with Britain. A Foreign Office official said that after the blockades of the Franco years, Spain needs to build confidence if the colony is to be persuaded to accept Spanish rule.

``The Spanish have got to show a willingness to be more agreeable so that confidence can be built up and Gibraltarians don't feel under pressure,'' the official said. ``This could take a long, long time.''

Two practical steps, in the British view, would be to remove delays in traffic crossing into Gibraltar from Spain and to reinstate ferry service to the nearby Spanish port of Algeciras.

Meanwhile, Britain has reservations about Spain's less-than-full commitment to NATO. Spain prohibits nuclear weapons on its soil and recently expelled a United States fighter squadron from its base in Torrej'on. ``The English would prefer the Spanish to be full members of NATO, but it's not clear what long-term contribution Spain can make to NATO,'' said Hugh Thomas, member of the House of Lords and a specialist on Spain.

Doubts about Spain's posture toward NATO and its long-term contribution to Western defense have made Thatcher reluctant to approve its application for membership in the West European Union, a loose defense grouping of West European NATO members. The subject was discussed by the two foreign ministers in Madrid during the Queen's visit and a decision is expected in the next few months.

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