Falkland Island takeover stalls negotiations over Gibraltar

The Argentine seizure of the Falkland Islands has had repercussions on another British colony - Gibraltar.

Spain was due to reopen its frontier with Gibraltar on April 20. It was closed 12 years ago in protest over continued British control of the Rock.

Simultaneously negotiations on giving Spain sovereignty over the Rock and its 30,000 inhabitants were due to start in Sintra, Portugal, between British and Spanish foreign ministers.

But both sides have concluded it would be inopportune to proceed as planned, given the climate created by the Argentine takeover of the Falklands.

Both the frontier opening and the foreign ministers' talks have been postponed until June 25.

Spain is in a difficult position over the Falkland Islands issue because the Argentine claim stems from Spain's colonial heritage in Latin America. It has therefore consistently supported Argentina's claim, seeing it - at least until the seizure - as similar to its own claim on Gibraltar.

British officials were not pleased when Spain abstained in the UN Security Council vote condemning the Argentine takeover of the Falkland Islands - nor with a Spanish government statement giving veiled support to the Argentine action.

Furthermore, the Spanish were prepared to open the border with Gibraltar only if simultaneous talks were started on eventual sovereignty, which they claim Britain gained illegally by the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht.

The British on their part could hardly proceed as if everything were normal. With the British foreign secretary having just resigned over the failure to protect one foreign colony and with British fleets in place to possibly begin hostilities to protect the sovereignty of another, it would scarcely be easy for the new foreign secretary to start talks.

The Spanish government has been suspicious of British intentions on Gibraltar all along, and the original agreement reached in April 1980 between then-Foreign Secretaries Lord Carrington and Marcelino Oreja to reopen the border in June of that year never jelled.

It was Prime Minister Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo during his visit to London in January this year who finally committed Spain to reopening the border on condition that parallel talks would begin at foreign ministerial level in Portugal to resolve the future of Gibraltar.

But the Spanish know they must reopen the border eventually. If they drag their heels on the reopening of the frontier this will have negative repercussions on their application to join the European Community and their impending membership in NATO. (Their abstention in the UN censure motion of Argentina went directly against the stance of the European Community.)

This is why both sides have found it in their interests to issue a joint communique announcing the postponement of the frontier reopening and the simultaneous talks.

By allowing a three-month postponement both sides hope the atmosphere will change because Britain and Spain are insisting that they are bound to respect the contents of the Portugal agreement.

The postponement comes as another disappointment to Gibraltarians. They were all geared up to end their physical isolation from Spain.

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