Ostensibly, Spain is angry that Gibraltar has directly settled a fishing rights dispute with local Spanish fishermen. Madrid insists that all such matters should be handled by itself and the British Government, and says it had a verbal agreement with Robin Cook to that effect. In reality, the row is the latest chapter of a Spanish war of attrition to retake Gibraltar.
How long has this war been going on?
Since the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 ceded the Rock to Britain. Spanish pride has never come to terms with the loss of a chunk of mainland territory (imagine what we would feel if Bristol, say, was part of Spain). Things were especially fraught under General Franco. He sealed the land frontier in 1969. The blockade lasted until 1985.
Isn't the whole thing a bit of an anachronism today?
You might easily think so. After all, Franco died in 1975. Spain is a democracy and, like Britain, belongs to a European Union within which such national squabbles are supposed to become irrelevant.
What's being done to settle the problem?
Abel Matutes, the Spanish Foreign Minister, tabled Madrid's most recent proposals in December 1997, based on the proposition that Spain seeks sovereignty over only the land, not the people, of Gibraltar. The plan calls for an unspecified period of joint sovereignty, after which Gibraltar would return to Spain. But the people would be able to retain British citizenship and enjoy special tax status. The colony would gain devolved powers and enjoy autonomy comparable to that of Catalonia.
What's wrong with that?
Nothing - except that the Gibraltarians won't hear of it: 98 per cent of them want to stay part of the UK. Their main gripe is that they're a colony, and would like to become a crown dependency, like the Channel Islands. And, as the Foreign Office never tires of repeating, the Government will not act without the consent of the 30,000 Gibraltarians.
Of course, Spain wouldn't have any tiny overseas territories which it is being asked to give back, would it?
As a matter of fact, it does. Morocco would dearly like to take possession of the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla on the North African coast. But Madrid argues that when they were captured (in 1580 and 1497) Morocco didn't exist. So how can Morocco ask for them "back"?