Britain and Spain Make Progress on Gibraltar A modest agreement between Britain and Spain over pensions and the use of the airport at Gibraltar is seen as a big step forward in the dispute over the small island. Spain has long sought the return of Gibraltar from British control.

Britain and Spain Make Progress on Gibraltar

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Another dispute that stretches back through centuries may be closer to resolution. About 300 years ago, Britain took over Gibraltar. That peninsula sticks out into the western opening of the Mediterranean Sea. It's one of the more strategically important spots in the world, and its former owner, Spain, has always wanted it back. Now the two nations have reached a deal on the use of an airport and pensions. That modest agreement is seen as the biggest step forward in decades.

Here's Jerome Socolovsky.

JEROME SOCOLOVSKY: Gibraltar measures just two and a half square miles. Much of that area is taken up by a giant limestone outcropping, the famous Rock of Gibraltar. But the territory has been a sore point between Spain and Britain since the British navy captured it in 1704. Yesterday's deal will allow shared use of Gibraltar's single runway airport. Reports say flights from Madrid are expected to begin in December.

Until now, Spain restricted the approach to Gibraltar's airport, forcing British planes to maneuver around Spanish airspace. Britain is promising to pay the pensions of Spaniards who used to work in the territory. But the deal does not touch on the issue of sovereignty.

Several years ago, a referendum was held in Gibraltar on a proposal for sharing sovereignty. The response was an overwhelming no. Peter Caruana is Gibraltar's chief minister, elected by Gibraltarians. He told Spanish television this morning that shared sovereignty remains out of the question on grounds of principle.

Mr. PETER CARUANA (Chief Minister, Gibraltar): (Foreign Language Spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: Whoever thinks sovereignty can be shared thinks sovereignty has no meaning, he said. Caruana signed the deal yesterday, after two years of negotiations in a palace in the southern Spanish city of Cordoba. Also signing it were Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos and the British Minister for Europe, Geoff Hoon. It was the first time Spain dropped its insistence on strictly bilateral negotiations, blocking pArcticipation from Gibraltar. Peter Caruana says that's what made this deal possible.

Mr. CARUANA: (Foreign Language Spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: Before, it was not possible for Gibraltar to pArcticipate in the political talks in a dignified way, he said. Despite yesterday's deal, the dignity of the people of Gibraltar could perpetuate a thorny dispute between two otherwise friendly nations.

For NPR News, I'm Jerome Socolovsky in Madrid.

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