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The road that goes two ways in Europe

With Britain withdrawing from the EU, and Catalonia heading for the door the Government of Spain is again demanding that the enclave of Gibraltar be “returned” to Spain. This is an evergreen issue that dates back to the end of the Spanish War of Succession in 1713, when Spain ceded the rocky outcrop to Britain in the Treaty of Utrecht.

But, there is some irony to this demand – as Spain has its own Gibraltar-like scandal - an illegally held territory that for some 216 years Spain has occupied, ignoring international law.

Olivença (in Spanish: Olivenza) is a town of 12,000 souls, set on the southern border of Portugal and Spain. It is south of the towns of Elvas and Badajoz, and north of Barrancos. It has a long and tragic past, and has long been a bump in Spanish/Portuguese relations.

Before there was a Spain, the Treaty of Alcanizes between Castile and Portugal established Olivença as Portuguese back in 1297. But in 1801, Spain declared war on Portugal under pressure from France in a bid to close Portuguese ports to Britain. Spain seized Olivença, and took it as a prize of war, after all, the fortified town was surrounded on two sides by Spain. Then came the Napoleonic Wars, and later the Congress of Vienna, where Olivença was ordered returned to Portugal. But, the Spanish did not leave. They banned the speaking of Portuguese, cut all ties to Portugal and settled in for the next two centuries. The only bridge back to Portugal sat in ruins.

Over tumultuous years, Spain’s seizing of Olivença would be a perennial political cause, but the chaos of war left Portugal in no condition to do anything about Olivença. Nor did Portugal did not press the issue during the dark years of the Spanish Civil War, and relations between the two nations would improve as the 20th century wore on. Compared to the humiliation of failed colonialism in Africa and Asia, and the chaos that followed the 1974 Revolution that restored democracy to Portugal, the issue of Olivença seemed minor.

Today, a new bridge connects Olivença to Portugal (next to the ruined old one). Portuguese mosaic sidewalks are featured in the Plaza de España. There is an ancient Portuguese coat of arms over the door to the town hall and on the keep of the castle. It is a sleepy, peaceful place - the scars of war are hard to find.

And, with the open frontier, you hear both Portuguese and Spanish spoken in this sunny town. In fact, it is not uncommon to hear bi-lingual conversations over a cup of Portuguese coffee and a Spanish pastry at the local café. The common currency of the Euro is used here — and like so many frontier towns along the Guadiana River, Olivença is a meeting place of cultures and people – far from a sore point, as one sees on the boarder of Gibraltar. It is a fascinating study in what an open border can do.

So, what to do? The war that took Olivença from Portugal was long ago. People who live in Olivença have a unique culture — and have access to Portuguese TV, radio, newspapers and wines. Most of them speak Spanish, and take pride in their bicultural landscape.

Maybe retuning Olivença to Portugal is not needed in a modern EU. Perhaps Portugal’s peaceful response to the occupied town is an example to Madrid that sometimes bygones have to be just that. And, if that is the case, then Olivença is as much an example of how the EU has succeeded, as Gibraltar is an example of how it has failed.

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