- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 30, 2006

GIBRALTAR — Walk into Gibraltar Airport and the departure gates offer just one destination: Britain. Stroll across the border into Spain and your cell phone dies.

These irritants, imposed by Spain to make things difficult for Gibraltarians as part of its 300-year-old effort to recover “the Rock” from Britain, are supposed to vanish under a historic three-way accord announced in September.

The agreement promises to breathe new life into this tiny relic of the once-mighty British Empire around the year-end holidays. Among various concessions by all sides, it calls for easier access to and from Gibraltar, and an end to Spanish telecommunications interference that prevents Gibraltar cell phones from functioning on Spanish soil.

Esmeralda Valerga is thrilled. She moved from Gibraltar to Spain for cheaper housing, and commutes by scooter to her waitress job on the 21/4-square-mile Rock. “For me the deal is great. It’ll mean more work, more money and a faster ride home after work,” she said.

At present her ride is a slow-motion nightmare because Spanish border police deliberately take their time — Madrid’s way of making its weight felt in the long tug of war with Britain over Gibraltar’s ownership.

Spain ceded Gibraltar to Britain in 1713, but never relinquished its claim to it. Gen. Francisco Franco, the Spanish dictator, shut the border in 1969 and it didn’t reopen completely until 1985.

As long as Spain was a dictatorship, Britain could make a moral case for keeping Gibraltar, a democracy. But Spain and Britain are both democracies now and both belong to the European Union, which would like to see this ancient feud settled for good.

Some among Gibraltar’s 28,000 people fear they have let in a Trojan horse.

“Basically, and I think I speak for most Gibraltarians, I just don’t trust the Spanish,” said businessman Jose Bocio. “We think they will stop at nothing just to get Gibraltar back, and we will never agree to give up our independence.”

Gibraltar is largely self-governing, with its own court system, but imports its food from Spain and Britain. The Royal Navy runs the port, a key source of revenue. The people are British citizens but do not vote in British elections. Instead, they elect a 15-member legislature.

It’s a hybrid culture. People speak impeccable English and swear allegiance to Queen Elizabeth II, but are also fluent in Spanish. Policemen in British bobby uniforms pound the beat, Asian, Arab and Jewish stores and restaurants fill the alleys.

While Mr. Bocio worries that Spain’s nice-guy attitude is a ploy, others are pleased that, this time, a treaty was reached not over their heads but with their government’s full participation.

“I’m delighted,” said opposition politician Charles Gomez. “I don’t usually get a chance to congratulate the Gibraltar government, but for the first time in history they have got us recognized.”

Gibraltarians say that for too long they have lived under siege — borders abruptly closing, or the water supply from Spain being cut off anytime things turned nasty on the diplomatic front.

Because Spain has refused to run more telephone landlines into the colony, many Gibraltarians have to depend on a single line for their phone, fax and Internet. The shortage has become more acute as Gibraltar has become a center for online gambling sites.

Besides, Gibraltar is a crowded place — so small that traffic has to stop for incoming and outgoing flights, because the runway crosses the main road.

The new deal will open the doors to investment, especially in tourism and gambling-related business, said business consultant Peter Hulme.

And wherever you go in Gibraltar, history is on view. References to the Rock as a symbol of the once unshakable British Empire abound.

“Lieutenant William Forster, late of his majesty’s ship Colossus, died of wounds received in the glorious battle of Trafalgar,” reads a tombstone dated 1805 in a tiny graveyard.

Next to the tomb, eating from a bag of chocolate candy, sits a Barbary ape — a species of monkey whose continued survival on the Rock guarantees that Gibraltar will remain British — or so the legend goes.

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