Spain has contested the status of Gibraltar for almost 300 years. Last week's rumble of gun-boat diplomacy and scenes of traffic queuing at Spanish customs are a further chapter in the saga of objections to British sovereignty over 30,000 inhabitants of the the "Rock".
Can next week's talks between British foreign secretary Robin Cook and his Spanish counterpart Abel Matutes achieve any progress towards a long-term resolution of a seemingly intractable problem?
John Naylon, director of the Iberian studies unit at Keele University's European Research Centre, who is researching a book on the issue, thinks not. "The positions are irreconcilable. Spain is sticking to the letter of the Treaty of Utrecht and insisting that the only people authorised to speak for Gibraltar and its people is the British government.
"A new relationship must be struck between Madrid and London. The trouble is it is a tripartite situation and London and Gibraltar are not always on the same side. London would have resolved the difficulty before now were it not for the prickliness of Gibraltarians, who feel London attaches more importance to relations with Madrid than with Gibraltar, whose strategic and commercial importance has declined."
He favours the Andorran solution of joint sovereignty. "Eventually this could lead to Gibraltar achieving regional autonomy within the Spanish state."
There are local economic advantages to the status quo, particularly to the Algeciras region, from which 3,000 workers cross to Gibraltar daily.
Gibraltar's economy is still thriving despite the reduction in defence spending, based on a bilingual society with a well-developed business acumen, Dr Naylon says. He foresees the axis of growth in Spain extending through Gibraltar to Morocco. "There are already proposals for a bridge or tunnel across the straits."
Morocco will be watching events closely. It has a longstanding claim against Spain for the return of Ceuta and Melilla, tiny Spanish enclaves in Morocco which, Dr Naylon suggests, logically should be handed back if Gibraltar is resolved.
The Times HigherJFebruary 19 1999international news 15