Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Llívia - Border Incidents at a Spanish Exclave

With a border dispute in Gibraltar making news at the moment, many people are citing the examples of Ceuta and Melilla, Spain’s own possessions in overseas territories (exclaves), as a good reason why Madrid’s kettle should stop calling the UK's pot black.  Perhaps rightly so.  But, in addition to Ceuta and Melilla which nestle on the north African coast of Morocco, there exists a little-known third Spanish exclave which, like Gibraltar, is located on the European mainland. However (and unlike Gibraltar) there don't appear to be any problems for those wishing to drive into it.

Situated two miles over Spain’s northern border, and surrounded by the Pyrénées-Orientales départment of southern France, is the small and attractive Spanish town of Llívia.  Like Ceuta and Melilla, Llívia is a throwback to Spain’s past but rather than being a vestige of colonialism, its present isolation is the simple result of border changes several centuries ago.  In 1659, the Treaty of the Pyrenees ceded a number of Spanish villages in the area to France although not Llívia, which, as a city, was to remain Spanish.  It had been the ancient capital of Cerdanya and was perceived as too important to give away.  Today it is a quiet tourist centre - location of ‘Europe’s oldest pharmacy’ - with a population of around 1500.

The principle complaints arising in Gibraltar arise from the Spanish insistence on delaying (and possibly eliciting a fee from) cross-border traffic. Such traffic travelling through France between mainland Spain and Llívia moves effortlessly on a quiet highway but this hasn’t always been the case.

Look on any Spanish map and it is the N-154 that links Llívia to Spain.  Look on any French map and the N-154 becomes the D68 for 2 km through France.  For many years, this road, on which foreign vehicles were prohibited until 1995, formed a crossroads at its junction with the Avenue Emmanuel Brousse - the deceptively unassuming name given to France’s main N20, the European trunk route E9, in that particular area.  And it was here that belligerence (from both countries) raised its ugly head.

For the Spanish, the concept of having to yield to foreigners on what they considered a direct link between their own cities was out of the question.  For the French, the N20 linked Paris to the Pyrénées and was a prime artery on its national road network. 

Unsurprisingly both countries claimed right of way at this junction and it became the site of ‘la guerre des stops’.  Priority became a matter of national pride. For years any ‘stop’ signs erected by one country were quickly taken down by the other and, unsurprisingly, the junction was the scene of many horrific accidents until the Spanish built a flyover - El Pont de Llívia - in 1983.  (To add a certain frisson to negotiating the dangerous intersection, a level crossing with a 3rd rail electrified narrow gauge railway - ‘Le Train Jaune’ - was also incorporated into the site). 

Closer to the exclave of Llívia, a less expensive compromise was reached when a roundabout (described, for some reason, as ‘lovely’ in local tourist literature) was constructed at the junction of the link road and the D30, the only other French road it crosses, which serves nearby villages.  Even here, however, jingoism had its way.  Despite having four roads feeding off it, the roundabout featured an astonishing number of no-left- and no-right-turn signs festooned along each of its approaches, which prohibited all traffic from going anywhere other than straight across. Other than giving way to the left, the two nations could cross each other’s path in relatively calm oblivion.

And it is this very European D68/D30 solution by which the Gibraltar problem can be solved.  We might ask our old allies the French to tax the Spanish as they pass through their sovereign territory (the French could keep the income as ‘foreign aid’) but that would be unnecessarily confrontational. No, visitors to the rock should do what the Spanish and their neighbours do at Llívia - and which motorists across Europe do elsewhere to this very day.

Ignore the stop signs.

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