Minister says Spain 'acting like North Korea' and 'sabre rattling' in row over Gibraltar

Fabian Picardo accused the Spanish government of behaving like they did during Franco's regime

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Spain is acting like North Korea and “sabre rattling” the chief minister of Gibraltar has warned in a further escalation of the row over the British territory.

Fabian Picardo accused the Spanish government of behaving like they did during Franco's regime and vowed that ‘hell will freeze over’ before the authorities in Gibraltar remove a disputed artificial reef created to bar Spanish fishing boats.

Mr Picardo said Spanish foreign minister Jose Garcia-Margallo was being belligerent when he suggested that a 50 euro (£43.40) fee could be imposed on every vehicle entering or leaving the British Mediterranean outpost through its border with Spain.

Today the Foreign Office moved to calm tensions over the British territory by saying the row would be resolved by political means not "disproportionate" measures.

The statement follows the move by Spanish authorities to increase border checks causing delays last weekend and the statement yesterday that a vehicle fee and closing Spanish airspace to Gibraltar flights was being considered.

In an interview with Spanish newspaper ABC published yesterday Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo had suggested that :

Spanish tax authorities could investigate the properties owned by 6,000 Gibraltarians in neighbouring parts of Spain.

- Spanish airspace could be closed to flights en route to Gibraltar.

- Stop concrete and materials used to build an artificial reef being brought over the border.

- Changing the law so online gaming companies in Gibraltar have to use Spanish servers and thus pay tax to Spain.

The suggestions in the article prompted an immediate response from the Foreign Office yesterday who said they were "concerned" by the comments and would "not compromise on our sovereignty over Gibraltar, nor our commitment to its people. We continue to use all necessary measures to safeguard British sovereignty.”

A spokesman made clear that the UK expects Madrid to live up to the commitments it made in the 2006 Cordoba Agreement, which included deals on issues like border crossings and access for flights, as well as establishing a tripartite forum for regular dialogue between Britain, Spain and Gibraltar.

Speaking on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme the chief minister of Gibraltar, Fabian Picardo said: "What we have seen this weekend is sabre-rattling of the sort that we haven't seen for some time.

"The things that Mr Garcia-Margallo has said are more reminiscent of the type of statement you'd hear from North Korea than from an EU partner.

"We've seen it before during Franco's time during the 1960s but I think all of us hoped that those politics were never going to come back and that the much more enlightened politics of Mr Moratinos (Miguel Angel Moratinos), who was the previous but one foreign minister of Spain, would prevail, which talked about people working together and creating economic benefits for the citizens on both sides of the frontier rather than the belligerence we are seeing now."

Spain claims sovereignty over the Rock, which stands on the southernmost tip of the Iberian peninsula but has been a British Overseas Territory since the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713.

But the UK Government has made clear that it will not negotiate over sovereignty as long as Gibraltar's people want to remain British.

Foreign Secretary William Hague last month phoned Mr Garcia-Margallo to complain about Spain ramping up border checks, which forced drivers to wait for up to seven hours in searing heat.

The Foreign Office yesterday summoned the Spanish ambassador to demand assurances that there would be no repeat of the excessive checks.

David Cameron is "seriously concerned" about events at the Spanish border but proposals for fees or airspace restrictions have not been raised with the UK by the authorities in Madrid, the Prime Minister's spokesman said.

"Clearly, we remain seriously concerned by the events at the Spain/Gibraltar border," he said.

"Specifically on this issue of border fees, the Spanish have not raised the prospect of introducing border fees with us. We are seeking an explanation from them regarding reports that they might target Gibraltar with further measures."

The Government is in "close contact" with the Spanish about the issue, but the spokesman refused to give further details about what the next steps might be.

The Prime Minister last spoke to his counterpart, Mariano Rajoy, about the issue at a European Council in June, before the latest escalation of tensions at the border.

Additional reporting by the Press Association.