GIBRALTAR -- The Rock isn't as steady as it used to be.
After nearly three centuries under British rule, the Rock of Gibraltar -- a synonym for dependability and a symbol of the British empire's former invincibility -- is tipping back into Spanish hands, to the alarm of many of its residents.
The Spanish and British governments have revived negotiations after 13 years of deadlock on the future of Europe's only colony and pledged to reach an agreement by summer, which many people expect to lead to decolonization.
That would fulfill a long-held Spanish dream and rid Britain of an issue that has bedeviled relations with Spain since the War of Spanish Succession in the early 1700s.
It would also be a boon for Europeans. Gibraltar has been a repeated obstacle to cooperation within the 15-nation European Union, recently holding up a deal on a unified air traffic control system designed to reduce delays for hundreds of millions of travelers.
But it is the last thing Gibraltarians want. The views of the nearly 30,000 inhabitants of the cramped sliver of land surrounding the Rock have barely budged since a 1967 referendum -- when all but 44 of the 12,182 ballots cast were against returning to Spanish rule.
"We are quite happy to stay as we are," says dentist George Earl, grimacing as he sits in a long queue of cars waiting to cross the border.
The line is backed up so far on the isthmus that it spills over the airport runway and traffic has to be stopped every time a plane lands. At the border crossing, a Spanish guard leisurely checks passports while chatting with a colleague.
Spanish officials say they restrict the frontier because Britain hasn't scrapped EU passport controls and they also contend the colony is a center of money laundering and contraband smuggling.
Gibraltarians claim the border snarl -- along with Spanish-led international sports boycotts -- are meant to demoralize them so they'll accept Spanish rule.
"They're not going to get anywhere with this," Earl shouts as frustrated drivers honk their horns.
Emblem to world
Measuring just 2 1/2 miles by 1 mile, Gibraltar is only about 11 times the size of the Mall in Washington.
One of the mythological "Pillars of Hercules" flanking the strait where Europe and Africa nearly touch, the 1,405-foot-high limestone promontory commands the entrance to the Mediterranean, which made it a key base when Britain's Royal Navy ruled the seas. But the long range of modern weapons and the changing world situation lessened its importance, and Britain's military left years ago.
The name Gibraltar is thought to be a corruption of Jebel al-Tariq, or Mount Tariq, after the 8th century Islamic conquerer of the Iberian Peninsula.
In 1704, an Anglo-Dutch army led by British Adm. George Rooke captured Gibraltar from the Spaniards, with orders to put it under the domain of Charles III, the Hapsburg claimant to the Spanish throne.
But under the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, Charles' Bourbon rival, Philip V, ceded the territory to Britain in exchange for being recognized as Spain's monarch. The pact included the condition that if Britain ever got rid of Gibraltar, preference "shall always be given to the Crown of Spain before any others."
Periodic Spanish attempts, or threats, to recover Gibraltar by force continued until the Spanish dictator Gen. Francisco Franco sealed the border in 1969 in an attempt to coerce the colony's return by isolating it economically.
Such persistence is rooted in Gibraltar's negative symbolism in Spanish culture, as opposed to the positive connotation in the English-speaking world that made the Rock a commercial emblem for the Prudential insurance company.
Historian Charles Powell, the son of a Spanish mother and English father who lives in Madrid, Spain's capital, says Gibraltar reminds Spaniards of the beginning of their imperial decline at the hands of Britain.
"England is the perfidious Albion, the Protestant enemy, the Anglo-Saxon enemy, the 'Anti-Spain' in the Spanish tradition," Powell says. "To have the Anti-Spain occupying a piece of Spanish territory is the ultimate insult."
In previous talks, Spain refused to discuss anything but regaining full sovereignty, viewing the Utrecht treaty as ruling out self-determination for Gibraltarians.
The Foreign Office in London still insists that any change in sovereignty should be approved by the people of Gibraltar. However, Spain's El Pais newspaper said Jan. 11 that negotiators are secretly discussing a deal in which London would relinquish that demand in exchange for Madrid accepting joint administration for an indefinite period.
Long tradition as colony
The head of the colony's self-rule government, Chief Minister Peter Caruana, refuses to attend the talks between British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Pique.
"We should not be expected to endorse by our presence a process in which things can be agreed over our heads," Caruana says, pounding his fist on a long oaken table in his office.
But his spokesman, Francis Cantos, says Caruana has gone to Spain twice for secret meetings with a foreign ministry official to voice his demand for a veto right if he attends the Gibraltar negotiations. So far, that demand has not been met, Cantos said.
Recalling Hong Kong's reversion to Chinese rule in 1997, Caruana's predecessor, Joe Bossano, fears Britain wants out of Gibraltar, too.
"There is a long tradition that the British get out of their colonies when they want to get out, by manipulating the situation so that they appear to be kicked out and they go out being the victims," he says.
In a sense, the pullout has already begun. The British naval yard, long the lifeblood of the local economy, was closed in 1985.
Nevertheless, Gibraltarians have adapted well. After Spain reopened the border that year, they began transforming the territory into an offshore business center and tourist mecca, now drawing 6 million visitors a year.
What used to resemble a run-down, working-class London neighborhood -- only sunnier and warmer -- has been transformed into a picturesque town with cobblestone streets and cozy outdoor cafes below the restored battlements where cannoneers once kept Spanish soldiers at bay.
The Spaniards nowadays come as shoppers. They snap up watches, electronics, food and jewelry in the tax-free shops lining Main Street, the only thoroughfare longer than a few blocks.
With the private sector now accounting for nearly 90 percent of Gibraltar's economic activity, some shopkeepers fear their competitive advantage will vanish if they return to Spanish rule.
"We would be just another little town in Spain," says jeweler Clara Cohen, whose ancestors immigrated in the 18th century even though Jews were still banned from post-Inquisition Spain.
Gibraltarians cite their ethnic diversity as one thing that differentiates them from Spain. One look at names in the phone book makes this evident: Clinton, Codali, Coelho, Clarke, Cid de la Paz, Clancy, Chipolina, Chiara, Chulani.
"Gibraltar is a microcosm of New York ... a melting pot of people with an identity all their own," says Caruana.