gibraltar-cp-2179221

Gibraltar, a small British outcropping, has dealt with sovereignty issues for much of its modern history. ((Paul White/Associated Press))

Spain's foreign minister made a historic border crossing to the disputed British colony of Gibraltar on Tuesday, the first by a Spanish cabinet minister since the Rock on Spain's southern tip was ceded almost 300 years ago.

Miguel Angel Moratinos, who arrived shortly before 2 p.m. local time, was to meet British counterpart David Miliband and Gibraltar Chief Minister Peter Caruana for talks on fishing, environmental issues and ways to combat crime on the Rock.

Spain ceded sovereignty of Gibraltar to Britain in a 1713 treaty, but has persistently sought its return, claiming the territory as a natural and historic part of its geography. The outcropping is in the Strait of Gibraltar, for centuries a strategic waterway linking the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.

Tuesday's meeting was part of an agreement to discuss issues concerning the colony while sidestepping the question of sovereignty.

The trip has been criticized by Spain's main opposition conservative Popular Party as a "terrible mistake" that is tantamount to recognizing Gibraltar as a sovereign territory.

"The issue of sovereignty is not at stake," Leire Pajin, spokeswoman for the governing Socialist party, countered. She said the trip was to help improve life for Spaniards who live near and work in Gibraltar.

Spanish officials have visited Gibraltar before but Moratinos is the first minister to do so.

The Rock is a quirky, multicultural British outpost of 30,000 people, most of whom speak perfect Spanish and even own property along Spain's southern Mediterranean coast. An estimated 12,000 people cross over from Spain daily to work and many more to visit.

Disputes over issues such as customs and border matters, fishing rights, Gibraltar's offshore banking practices and smuggling have long embittered relations.