As Spain, Britain negotiate, Gibraltar demands a voice

Spain and Britain plan to settle the question of sovereignty over this British colony by next summer.


These 2-1/2 miles are some of the world's most strategic real estate. This peninsula off the southern tip of Spain is best known for the Rock of Gibraltar, which juts 1,400 feet above the Mediterranean Sea. But now, the tiny community of 30,000 is fighting to hold its own amid a political storm over its future.

Gibraltar became a British colony when the Treaty of Utrecht was signed in 1713, but Spain has been trying to reclaim it ever since.

Now, as Spain and Britain attempt to improve their relationship, both sides want to settle the issue of Gibraltar. After four years of silence on the issue, leaders from both countries met in Barcelona last week to discuss who should have sovereignty, leaving many Gibraltarians feeling like pawns.

Fueled by years of frustration, there is a growing sentiment here that the only course left is a radical one. In an office building off Gibraltar's main square, a small coalition of journalists, business owners, lawyers, and politicians met last week to brainstorm acts of civil disobedience - such as blocking the 3,000 Spanish workers who commute here every day.

"Things have been going on behind our back, and it has all happened so quickly," says Steven Marin, who hosted the meeting. "If you push someone and violate their rights, people react violently."

Marie Lou Guerrero, president of the Gibraltar Federation of Small Businesses, agrees. "We have turned from completely passive to completely reactionary. We will not be forced into a deal that we don't want."

According to a joint statement issued by Josep Pique, the Spanish minister of foreign affairs, and Jack Straw, British foreign secretary, the two nations plan to come to an agreement on sovereignty and cooperation by the summer. But Gibraltarians are strongly opposed to Spanish sovereignty. When the last referendum was held in 1969, they voted 12,138 to 144 in favor of British over Spanish sovereignty.

"If you put a Spanish flag over the rock, I am an immigrant in my own country," says Louis Vinet, a retired taxi driver and grandfather, whose family has lived in Gibraltar since 1730. "I have never been Spanish and never will be."

Anti-Spanish sentiment flared in 1969 when General Francisco Franco closed the border, a blockade aimed at forcing Gibraltar into a union with Spain.

"My kids grew up seeing Spain as an enemy country," says Ms. Guerrero, who was 15 when the border closed, and the mother of two by the time it officially reopened in 1985. Gibraltarians complain that Spain systematically denies them of their basic rights as EU members by delaying them at the border crossing for no particular reason, says Guerrero.

Peter Caruana, the chief minister of the government of Gibraltar, was invited to last week's meeting - but only as part of the British delegation, which smarted with people here. "At least Great Britain used to be behind us," says Vinet. "Now, they are selling us out."

In a decision supported by the majority of Gibraltarians, Mr. Caruana says the government will attend future discussions only if the colony can participate with a voice of its own.

In a move to curb growing hostilities, Spain has offered to triple the number of telephone lines in Gibraltar and offer better access to its healthcare system. But Gibraltarians say they will not be bought. In a declaration of unity signed in October by every member of the House of Assembly, they state: "The people of Gibraltar will never compromise or give up our sovereignty, not for good relations with anybody and not for economic benefits either."

Politicians are also scrambling to draw up a new constitution by the end of the year to give Gibraltar more self-determination, though it would maintain its current ties with England, says the Hon. Joseph Garcia, leader of the Liberal Party of Gibraltar. By keeping ties with England, Gibraltarians enjoy such perks as free university education in England and tax-free status for businesses.

Despite a minority here who believe joining with Spain is inevitable, there is little hope that move would ever be accepted by the people. If it is enforced without consent, says Bruno Callaghan, president of the chamber of commerce, consequences could be grave. "You can't steamroller 30,000 people, or Gibraltar will just mirror the Basque country," he says. "There are hard times ahead."

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