GIBRALTAR -- This stubborn little community perched on the edge of the continent is gaining a reputation as a spoiler of Western European efforts to integrate.

The Gibraltar promontory, 2 1/2 miles long and less than a mile wide, juts into the Mediterranean Sea from the southern Spanish coast. But while the logic of its geography makes it part of Spain, the last three centuries of history have made it British.

During the long dictatorship of Francisco Franco, the 20th century world had little sympathy for Madrid's claims to The Rock. Spain's now-thriving democracy, plus its entry into NATO and the European Community, however, led Britain to acknowledge the anomaly of maintaining the last colony on the European mainland.

In 1984, the British agreed to discuss Spanish sovereignty claims. A year of talks brought the lifting of a Franco-imposed land blockade, and the gates to Gibraltar were swung open for the first time in 15 years.

Since then, however, there has been little progress. London's caveat to rapprochement with Spain on the issue was that it would never give up Gibraltar against the wishes of The Rock's citizens. Not only do the vast majority of the 25,000 Gibraltarians have no intention of becoming Spanish, they have opposed nearly every move toward Anglo-Spanish cooperation as a step along the road to rule by Madrid.

"There has always been the suspicion that the British would sell us down the river," said Horace J. Zammitt, Gibraltar's minister of tourism and one of the eight members of the ruling-party majority in the 15-seat House of Assembly.

From Zammitt's point of view, a Spanish Gibraltar would be an economic disaster. Tourism last year contributed more than half of the colony's $115 million revenue.

More than 3 million visitors came to wander the narrow streets of the town, its row houses and ambiance more evocative of Victorian England than next-door Andalusia, and to stare in awe at the sheer cliffs.

"Most people would tell you, if Gibraltar were Spanish it would lose its value," said Zammitt. "It would just be another three miles of Spanish land, and 25,000 more unemployed to add to the 3 million they already have."

Gibraltarians are the first to acknowledge that their tenacious hold on Britishness does not make them Britons. But, they insist, neither does the fact that most of them speak Spanish as a first language make them Spaniards. "I'm a Gibraltarian," said Juan Carlos Perez, a spokesman for the opposition political party.

Through successive waves of settlers, from Phoenicians, Romans and Visigoths, through seven centuries of Moorish occupation and 242 years of Spanish rule, Gibraltar has always been a mix of races and peoples.

When British invaders took over in 1704, fleeing Spanish residents were quickly replaced by immigrants -- Genoese, Moroccan Jews and Portuguese, Maltese and a sprinkling of Britons -- whose descendants populate The Rock today.

Since the border was opened, Gibraltarians spend much of their free time -- and invest an increasing amount of their money -- in the burgeoning nearby resorts of Spain's Costa del Sol. But profits and proximity have not bred affection.

"I can relate much better to a shipful of Maltese than a group from La Linea," the Spanish border town just outside the Gibraltar gate, Perez said. And to a shipful of Britons? "I don't relate to them at all."

Britain, however, is still the mother country, and if it does not want them, many Gibraltarians say, they would rather go it alone as an independent city-state. Most describe that route as economic lunacy, however, and maintain a close vigil on the Anglo-Spanish talks.

Gibraltar's local government has been led for more than four decades by a political party called the Association for the Advancement of Civil Liberties, with origins in the 1940s fight for self-governing colonial status. It has insisted on the right to be present at all negotiating sessions between London and Madrid.

Chief Minister Joshua Hassan, who has ruled here with scant interruption since 1945, has put his foot firmly down on anything perceived as a Spanish toehold on The Rock.

The opposition Gibraltar Socialist Labor Party, headed by trade union leader Joe Bossano, even more militantly anti-Spanish, has said it would have nothing to do with the talks.

Recent opinion polls have given the party a significant lead over the association for the first time in Gibraltar history, and local betting is that Bossano will take over after elections that must be held by next spring.

Gibraltar's unyielding stance has led to a series of small disputes between Britain and Spain. Last summer, they reached the point of confrontation after the local authorities refused a Spanish request to share the Gibraltar airport.

The airport runway, built on land reclaimed from the sea, juts out from the flat, sandy isthmus connecting The Rock to the Spanish coast. Madrid maintains that this strip was not included in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht that ended the Spanish war of succession and ceded Gibraltar to Britain in perpetuity.

When Britain acquiesced to the colony's wishes, perhaps in the knowledgethat Gibraltarian workers could choose to make the airport impossible to operate, Spain angrily took the matter to the European Community. In June, Madrid refused to approve a major transport agreement, intended to lower air fares throughout Europe, unless Gibraltar airport was excluded from its terms.

In a series of testy exchanges, London accused Madrid of sabotaging the transport accord, which took four years to draft, over a petty bilateral issue.

Madrid argued that there was no point in being in a community whose decisions had the effect of legalizing territorial "anachronisms." It vetoed the pact, and accused London of allowing the Gibraltarians to run its foreign policy.

European allies of both countries fear that any future multilateral program that might affect Gibraltar may be jeopardized if the dispute is not resolved.

But although both governments say they have made "some progress" in subsequent bilateral talks, there is little indication that compromise is near on the airport, or on the larger question of Gibraltar sovereignty.

British officials say there is no objection in principle to Gibraltar being turned over to the Spanish. "It's only natural that over time they should come together," said one official in London. But Britain is committed to respecting the "freely expressed wishes" of Gibraltarians, a concept that became dogma in 1982 when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher went to war with Argentina over another disputed British possession, the Falkland Islands.

"The fact is," the official said, that the Gibraltarians' "freely expressed wishes have produced Bulgarian-type election results." In a 1967 referendum, all but a handful rejected Spain, and it is thought likely that any future vote would produce an even more lopsided result.

Since Britain cannot force the residents of The Rock to want to belong to Spain, it has suggested that the Spanish abandon the confrontational approach and try to "woo" them.

"The only way there will be progress on sovereignty is if the Spanish themselves can overcome the mistrust grown up in recent decades among the Gibraltarians," the British official said.

That suspicion began during two lengthy 18th Century sieges, when Spain tried unsuccessfully to recapture The Rock. It was solidified in 1969, when Franco slammed shut the gates, leaving Gibraltar residents with no land access to the rest of Europe.

Gibraltarians have a long litany of what they consider "petty" Spanish slights. There was the Spanish referee who walked off the court rather than officiate at a European Volleyball Association match including players from Gibraltar. When a Europe-wide track meet was held last year in Spain, Madrid refused to let Gibraltarian athletes parade under their colonial flag.

Spain needs to show Gibraltar "the hand of friendship," the British official said.

To Madrid, Britain's reasoning is "absurd," said Jesus Ezquerra, Spain's chief negotiator on Gibraltar for the past two years. "Britain is like a bulldog," he said in a recent interview.

The feelings of the Gibraltarians, Ezquerra said, "are Britain's problem," not Spain's. "They say we have to win their good will. How? We've said they can keep their language and their culture. If they don't want to speak Spanish, they can speak something else. They can have their own finances, local autonomy and joint citizenship."

But whoever is doing the wooing, the Gibraltarians say they are not interested. "The British definitely have a problem," said Joe Garcia, editor of the local Panorama magazine. "They would like to find a way out of this where Spain would be friendly, would be a good neighbor to us."

Garcia said he can understand the Spanish point of view. "They could be genuinely nice and friendly, and may even be capable of sustaining it for a number of years. But it's a risk for them, and they must just say to themselves, 'We're wasting our time. At the end of the day, they'll just want to stay British.' "

"I think they're right," Garcia said.