A European Parliament committee on Wednesday backed giving Britons the right to travel to the European Union without visas after Brexit, following weeks of controversy over the way the draft legislation dubs Gibraltar a UK “colony”.
The LIBE committee had already approved a draft of the legislation without the controversial reference to Gibraltar, which was subsequently introduced by the European Council at Spain’s insistence.
The European Parliament refused to accept the change, sparking a row in which Spain singled out the committee’s representative, UK MEP Claude Moraes, and accused him of bias even though he was representing the views of his fellow MEPs, not just his own.
But with the UK facing the risk of an abrupt split from the bloc as soon as next week, EU states put pressure on the parliament this week to approve the file by forcing Mr Moraes from his role as the parliament’s rapporteur on the file.
The new parliamentary rapporteur, Bulgarian MEP Sergei Stanishev, was picked on Tuesday and spoke yesterday before the committee voted 38 to 8 in favour of the law, which still includes the footnote calling Gibraltar a UK “colony”.
But Mr Stanishev left no doubt that the parliament was accepting the legislation complete with controversial clause only because of the risk of a hard Brexit and the impact this could have on both EU and British citizens.
“It is not about the rapporteur,” he said during a debate in the European Parliament on Wednesday morning.
“There was no willingness on behalf of the Council to go for any compromise.”
During the trilogue process – in which the European Council, the parliament and the European Commission iron out any differences on draft legislation – the LIBE committee, through Mr Moraes, had tabled three alternative footnotes to address Spanish concerns while avoiding the use of the thorny word colony.
But on each occasion the council had declined to engage, preferring instead to maintain the colony footnote under Spanish pressure.
Mr Stanishev said that after he took over the role as rapporteur, he too had presented alternative wording, adding that “…we have always been constructive and looking for the spirit of European cooperation in compromise.”
“I believe it is important to show that our committee is looking for a solution,” he said.
“But after having this meeting, I can for sure tell you that our chair Claude Moraes conducted excellent negotiations in the first five rounds.”
“He did his best, he put forward three different compromise proposals, mine was the fourth one, but there was no willingness whatsoever on behalf of the Council, whatever we were doing.”
Mr Stanishev said in the face of the European Council’s intransigence, the LIBE committee was now faced with “the facts of life”.
He was referring to the risk that the UK and Gibraltar could crash out of the EU on April 12 without an agreement in place.
The prospect of a hard Brexit left the committee with the responsibility of finding a way to ensure that Britons and EU citizens could continue to travel without the need for visas.
The EU regulation 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, as long as the UK reciprocates.
“One fact that we cannot deny is that 12 April is coming and the fate of millions of British citizens and, as a follow-up, of many more European citizens and their possibility to travel without a visa is in our hands,” Mr Stanishev said.
“And the second thing is the responsibility, because the strategy of the Council in these negotiations was a kind of brinkmanship strategy, pushing things to the edge and waiting for the committee to bow and for parliament to bow.”
“This is not in the spirit of European cooperation, but with an uneasy heart, I would suggest you to support the report, because we have our responsibility which is much bigger than the blame game between the institutions or than to say, those are the people who failed…British citizens and European citizens to travel without a visa.”
“We cannot afford it in my understanding, thank you very much and I apologise.”
Spanish MEP Esteban González Pons, from the Partido Popular, said the outcome of the LIBE committee vote represented the EU’s “fundamental support” for Spain on Gibraltar.
“The reference to Gibraltar as a colony will be fundamental in trying to resolve the dispute over this territory in a post-Brexit scenario,” Mr Gonzalez Pons said.
“It has been made clear that the EU backs Spain in this respect, both in the European Parliament and in the Council where EU governments are represented.”
But in reality, the position in the LIBE committee was not as clear-cut as Mr Gonzalez Pons was making out and Bulgarian rapporteur was not alone in his concerns about the issues surrounding this vital regulation.
Mr Moraes himself said the two main political groups in the parliament had accepted Spain’s “opportunistic, unnecessary” reference to Gibraltar in the visa file.
Dutch MEP Sophia in ‘t Veld echoed that and said “…the way this has been handled by the Council and by the Parliament leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth.”
UK MEP Julia Reid, who was formerly with UKIP but is now with The Brexit Party, said the decision to oust Mr Moraes was “ludicrous” and “entirely unjustified”.
“Gibraltar is designated a British Overseas Territory,” she told the committee.
“The term Crown Colony is now obsolete in British Constitutional Law.”
“It is listed as a non-self-governing territory under Chapter 11 of the UN Charter.”
“You should be ashamed that you have allowed this report to be hijacked by the Spanish Government.”
UKIP MEP James Carver told the committee: “The rapporteur spoke about facts of life. There’s a fact of life that he didn’t mention, in that there is a Spanish general election taking place very shortly.”
“And what we’re talking about here of course is Spanish internal politics. So, the idea of the European Union being united in diversity is, I think, been shown to be a fallacy by the actions of this committee.”
Petr Ježek, a Czech MEP who has been very vocal in opposing the colony clause and Spain’s position, told the Chronicle that “the EU has failed on this entirely”.
Mr Ježek resigned as the Liberal group’s negotiator on the visa file, saying he was unable to associate himself “with the humiliation of the European Parliament”.
“I cannot support regulations which have potential to raise tensions in Europe,” he added.
The decision must still be approved by a plenary session of the EU parliament today to become EU law.
Mr Ježek is urging MEPs to vote down the controversial footnote.