Gibraltar Chief Minister Fabian Picardo poses next to a picture of Gibraltar at his office at Convent Palace. Picture: REUTERS
Gibraltar Chief Minister Fabian Picardo poses next to a picture of Gibraltar at his office at Convent Palace. Picture: REUTERS

GIBRALTAR — Gibraltar is confident it will win any legal case brought by Spain in a dispute over fishing waters and border controls, the head of the British territory says, challenging Madrid to meet him in court.

A defiant Fabian Picardo, Gibraltar’s chief minister, said he welcomed Spain’s willingness to take issues with Gibraltar to international courts, although it has not specified what issues and what tribunal.

"In any fairly constituted international tribunal, Gibraltar will win game, set and match," Mr Picardo said late on Wednesday in his large, intensely air-conditioned office in the subtropical British territory near the tip of the Iberian peninsula.

Spain ceded Gibraltar to Britain 300 years ago in the Treaty of Utrecht, but has long sought to reclaim it. Britain considered sharing sovereignty in the 1990s, but now promises to respect Gibraltar’s wishes to remain British.

Tensions with Gibraltar flared last month when Gibraltar built an artificial reef in what Spain says are shared waters. Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo said "the party was over" for Gibraltar, which enjoyed softer treatment from the previous Spanish Socialist government.

Mr Picardo, an Oxford-educated lawyer who has governed the territory’s 30,000-strong population for 18 months, said he did not regret saying Spain was acting like North Korea — colourful language he said was a response to Spain’s inflammatory language.

He said Spain was manufacturing problems with Gibraltar to distract its citizens from a corruption scandal involving alleged illegal financing in the ruling party, a charge echoed by Spanish opposition parties.

Mr Picardo said that he was pleased Mr Garcia-Margallo had opened the door to international arbitration.

"Those are the first words that Mr Margallo has uttered that I have ever welcomed. I very much hope that he sees through on that, and that we do meet in the more civilised environment of an international court, to make our arguments on all of those issues," Mr Picardo said.

Gibraltar is financially self-sufficient but Britain operates a military base on the peninsula, which uses the British pound and has a strongly British culture, although many people have some Spanish ancestry.

In retaliation over the reef, which all sides recognise will obstruct a small number of Spanish fishing boats, Spain ordered its border agents to make detailed searches of cars, which have caused frustration and delays of six hours, making it hard for Spanish workers crossing into Gibraltar every day and potentially putting off tourists who are a backbone of Gibraltar’s small but thriving economy.

Gibraltar and Britain have complained to the European Commission, which says it will look into whether Spain is being heavy-handed at the border. Spain, meanwhile, has threatened to block the ship-fuelling business in Gibraltar’s port, tax inspections of Gibraltarians with property in Spain, and even close Spanish airspace to the flights that bring tourists and business people from Britain.

"One of the things Spain needlessly complains about is Gibraltar’s position as a financial services centre, insisting that Gibraltar is a tax haven," said Mr Picardo, whose office is decorated with a large portrait of Queen Elizabeth.