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UK-Spain talks rock Gibraltar

The wait to cross the border from Spain to Gibraltar can sometimes take hours  

By CNN Madrid Bureau Chief Al Goodman

GIBRALTAR (CNN) -- The Rock of Gibraltar is a confluence point for many concepts: Culture, civilisation and conflict.

People line up at the border to get in -- all of them coming for a glimpse of the rock and one of the last vestiges of the old British Empire.

But it hasn't been harmonious here lately -- not since Britain, which has held Gibraltar for 300 years, started talking recently about sharing it with Spain, which wants to get the Rock back.

The issue of Gibraltar has been one of discontent between the two countries since the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht signed it over to the UK.

In March, the European Union called on Britain and Spain to end their differences over the Rock. And this week British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Spanish counterpart, Jose Maria Aznar, met in London for talks.

They insisted discussions over Gibraltar were on track despite key differences.

Population: 30,000  
Limestone Rock is 1,408 feet (440 metres) tall  
Britain has ruled Gibraltar for 300 years  
UK, Spain discussing shared Gibraltar sovereignty  
Some 3,000 Spaniards work in Gibraltar  
Population considers itself Gibraltarian and British  
Many residents speak both English, Spanish  
Bill for "Stay British" campaign: $2 million  
Who should have sovereignty over Gibraltar?

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Gibraltar's residents have witnessed many past efforts to change Gibraltar's status, and they watch each one carefully, trying to protect their interests.

"They want to make a deal with Spain against our wishes, and we will never accept that. And they know that," Gibraltar resident Lionel Masseti says of the British government.

UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw made his first visit to Gibraltar three weeks ago and was booed by protesters, who branded him "traitor," "liar" and "Judas."

Britain insists that the Rock's inhabitants should vote on any deal with Spain -- and that the referendum's result should be "durable."

"The people who will finally decide will not be the British Government or the Spanish Government, but the people of Gibraltar in a referendum," Straw said this week. "That was a solemn undertaking given in 1969 to the people of Gibraltar. We absolutely stand by it."

But Spain objects to the idea that Gibraltarians could knock sovereignty off the long-term agenda by rejecting a deal.

Despite the key differences, Madrid and London say they want a deal on Gibraltar by the summer. But opposition forces are digging in.

"Shared sovereignty doesn't work, because sovereignty depends on being able to exercise authority," says Michael Ancram, shadow foreign secretary for the Conservative British opposition.

"If you share with someone else, and you don't agree with the person you share with, there's no sovereignty."

Gibraltar's 30,000 residents come from diverse backgrounds, but they share an uncommon public affection for their Britishness -- even more so than many visitors from Britain itself, who drop across the border from Spain mainly to shop.

One recent tourist said he came to Gibraltar for the "cheap beer and cigarettes really, and to see the Rock." When asked which had higher priority, he responded, "Beer and cigarettes I'd have to say, to be honest with you."

Thousands of Gibraltarians turned out for a recent protest against shared sovereignty with Spain
Thousands of Gibraltarians turned out for a recent protest against shared sovereignty with Spain  

The once-thriving military presence is long gone, yet many of Gibraltar's residents want to remain British, clinging to their larger-than-life limestone Rock.

Gina Tremayne, assistant manager at a restaurant on Gibraltar's main square, is among them. A fifth-generation Gibraltarian, she worries about the possible outcome of the British-Spanish talks on shared sovereignty.

"Everything will change," she says. "We know. The people of Gibraltar know everything will change. The schooling will change, everything will change. It won't be British any more."

Jeronimo Perez is a cook at the same restaurant. He's worked in Gibraltar for 18 years, like his father before him, and has a different view.

"Most Spaniards would like to get the Rock back," he says, "but those of us who live closest to Gibraltar and who work here, maybe that doesn't matter so much."

Perez did not take part in a recent massive demonstration in favour of Gibraltar remaining British. But Tremayne was there.

"It was lovely," she says. "There was no violence, and it was really really nice. You know, everybody together, the whole Gibraltar, united. It was very good."

Gibraltar is so small that when a plane lands, the main road has to be closed. And on that point, Tremayne and Perez have found some common ground: Both agree that Gibraltar's airport might be shared with Spain.

And there are other annoyances -- like the fact that mobile phones from Gibraltar won't work in Spain, even though they can be used elsewhere in Europe.

"On weekends we go over to Spain, so in Spain you got to put this one away and use a Spanish mobile. You have a second one," says construction worker Eddie Castle.

Gibraltar is at the end of Europe, with Africa on the other side of the strait by the same name.

For centuries, distant powers have toyed with this place. And now, as Europe strives to find unity, Gibraltar is a diplomatic inconvenience -- its future clouded by mistrust among too many people who want a piece of the Rock.


• 'Good progress' in Gibraltar talks
February 4, 2002
• UK and Spain hold Gibraltar talks
February 3, 2002
• UK denies Gibraltar 'deal'
January 12, 2002
• Gibraltar boycotts Rock talks
November 19, 2001
• Threat to Gibraltar deal hopes
October 30, 2001
• Gibraltar fears sovereignty talks
November 9, 2001
• Gibraltar rejects sovereignty deal
March 16, 2002

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