The European Parliament has knocked back Spanish demands to include a footnote describing Gibraltar as a “colony” in proposed legislation on visa-free travel after Brexit, signalling mounting frustration over Madrid’s efforts to exploit Brexit for its own ends.
Spain had secured the reluctant support of its remaining 26 EU partners to include the footnote when the draft legislation was adopted by the European Council.
But yesterday MEPs unanimously opposed the move during the trilogue phase of the legislative process, in which the European Commission, the European Council and the parliament must reach agreement on a final text.
Unless the impasse is resolved, it could mean that British citizens– including Gibraltarians – travelling to Europe may need to pay £52 for a visa even for short visits.
The latest development came almost at the same time as Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell was on his feet in the Spanish Congress rejecting criticism over the Spanish Government’s handling of Brexit and insisting that, “for the first time in a long time”, Gibraltar had been described as “a colony” in an EU document.
In Brussels, however, MEPs said the controversial clause had not been in the original draft prepared by the European Commission and given initial approval by the parliament, but was subsequently introduced by the European Council at Spain’s insistence.
Petr Ježek, an independent Czech MEP who is part of the parliament’s negotiating team for the proposal, said many MEPs felt Spain should not be using vital Brexit legislation to further its aspirations over Gibraltar.
“This just complicates the whole process,” he told the Chronicle yesterday.
“Other member states are not interested in the [Gibraltar] issue and they do not want any escalation as a result of this.”
“But they do not have the cojones, to use a Spanish word, to tell Spain that they should not use this unfortunate moment of Brexit to push on Gibraltar.”
Mr Ježek said MEPs could not accept “colonial language from the middle of the last century” and had proposed alternative texts as a compromise, referring to a “dispute” or “controversy” over Gibraltar instead of the word “colony”.
But the European Council had held its ground, meaning the negotiation over the planned legislation was stuck. The European Parliament had now offered another compromise wording and was waiting to hear from the council.
“Brexit will hurt immensely and we should do everything possible to soften the impact rather than create further problems for half a billion people,” Mr Ježek said.
“If there is no agreement, and no visa exemption for the UK, the British government may adopt a similar approach – and that would be a disaster.”
Spain, he added, was “playing with fire” just weeks before the UK and Gibraltar were due to leave the EU.
For its part, the UK has made its position on the footnote clear and has objected to it through its ambassador to the EU, Sir Tim Barrow.
“Gibraltar is not a colony and it is completely inappropriate to describe in this way,” a spokeswoman for the UK Government said when the issue first flared up last month.
“Gibraltar is a full part of the UK family.”
Claude Moraes, the Labour MEP acting as the rapporteur representing the European parliament in the negotiations with the council, said the use of the word “colony” was “completely unnecessary legally or politically for this legislation to be enacted”.
“The addition is a political act. And my strategy is to work in a focused way to get a compromise wording to allow visa-free travel to become a reality, but I will never back down on the colony wording, which is unacceptable,” he told The Guardian.
“Having looked in depth to this legislation there is a clear understanding now of the wider economic and personal impact of this visa situation if this does not pass.”
“It will affect the lives of potentially millions of people in their business and family arrangements.”
If approved, the EU’s proposal would mean that Britons – including those from Gibraltar – would not require a visa for short visits to the EU after Brexit, even in the event of no deal.
The EU agreed that British citizens travelling to the Schengen area for stays of up to 90 days in any 180-day period should be granted visa-free travel.
But if the impasse is not broken and the UK crashes out on March29, British nationals seeking to travel to an EU country for fewer than 90 days would be required to pay €60 for a Schengen visa that can take two weeks to be authorised.
If the House of Commons finally backs the Prime Minister’s withdrawal agreement, British nationals would continue to be treated as EU citizens during a 21-month transition period, providing more time for a solution on the visa exemption to be found.
Yesterday, UK government sources told The Guardian they were confident that the legislation would go through and that British nationals would not be required to pay for a Schengen visa.