Spain, Britain crack deadlock over the Rock

The agreement between Spain and Britain to open the Gibraltar border and discuss sovereignty is seen here as heralding a new dawn for Spain's 270-year attempt to regain the Rock.

The inclusion of the word ''sovereignty'' in the Nov. 27 agreement - a last-minute concession by the British - is no small diplomatic victory for Spain.

As Foreign Minister Fernando Moran put it: ''For the first time since 1713, the British have accepted the idea of discussing Gibraltar's sovereignty.''

The diplomatic breakthrough is all the more a triumph in light of Britain's war with Argentina over control of the Falklands. That left the Spanish pessimistic that Britain would ever talk about sovereignty.

Although the agreement is viewed with satisfaction, Spanish press and political leaders have taken care to point out that Britain would still abide by the wish of the Gibraltarians as to whether to remain British.

While Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez said the accord was the start of a ''historical process,'' he warned it was best not to start blowing trumpets.

His recent recommendation that Spain remain within NATO is seen as helping the agreement along. Gibraltar is after all an important base for NATO. And the agreement was a necessary step in normalizing relations between a current and a future member of the European Community.

A cartoonist depicted what Gonzalez has called the three ''interdependent'' issues of NATO, Gibraltar, and the EC by showing a much relieved Gonzalez balancing EC entry and Gibraltar on one scale and NATO on the other.

But Spaniards are anticipating problems when the border is opened and reciprocal rights established for Spaniards and Gibraltarians. For one, the Spanish fear that millions of Britons will flood Spain via Gibraltar on cheap holiday tours and cut-rate flights, thereby hitting Spanish airports and travel business.

The sovereignty issue itself has a drawback, for Spain is likely to feel renewed pressure from Morocco to relinquish its enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla.

In all this, the Gibraltarians have felt left out. Joe Bossano, Socialist opposition leader in Gibraltar, angrily declared that Britain had already begun the process of decolonization behind their backs.

Gibraltar's chief minister, Sir Joshua Hassan, expressed satisfaction that the agreement upholds Gibraltarians' wishes. But he curiously declared to British television that Gibraltar could not be Spanish for at least a couple of generations, thereby projecting Spanish control of the Rock at some stage.

For the moment, the Spanish are pleased. They realize that General Franco's policy of isolating Gibraltar only moved the 20,000 civilian inhabitants of the Rock further from Spanish influence. Now, they hope the bilateral agreements stipulated by the accord - in the cultural, environmental, and military fields - will establish a stronger relationship between Gibraltar and Spain, and Gibraltar will slowly become integrated into the geographical region.

Then, perhaps one day, as Felipe Gonzalez puts it, geography will get the better of history.

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