A UK MEP has been hounded out of a key role on post-Brexit legislation for visa-free travel after standing up to Spanish “bullying” in a row over Gibraltar.
Labour MEP Claude Moraes was removed as the European Parliament’s spokesman on the file following sustained pressure from Spain.
Mr Moraes had represented the views of the parliament and opposed a move by Spain to introduce a footnote in the legislation describing Gibraltar as “a colony”.
The footnote was added by the European Council, at Spain’s insistence, after a parliamentary committee had already unanimously approved a draft of the regulation without the offending language.
At issue here was not just a reluctance to have Gibraltar, which enjoys a modern constitutional relationship with the UK, described as a colony, but also parliament’s reticence to simply accept Council’s changes to draft legislation it had already approved.
It was, in effect, an institutional tussle between different branches of the EU, with Gibraltar caught in the middle.
Mr Moraes said that as rapporteur on the file – a role in which he represented the views of the parliamentary committee responsible for the legislation – he was not prepared to allow the regulation to be “held hostage” by Spain.
Spanish MEPs argued that Mr Moraes was biased because he was British, an accusation he firmly rejected.
But on Tuesday, after days of political wrangling behind the scenes, Spain succeeded in obtaining support from the two largest political groups in the European Parliament, the European People’s Party and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats.
As a result, Mr Moraes was ousted from his role as rapporteur, to be replaced by the Bulgarian MEP Sergei Stanishev.
“Despite all the various compromise proposals from us we have been met with something of a brick wall from Council due, we believe, to Spain lobbying hard for the maintenance of the word ‘colony’ in the footnote,” Mr Moraes said.
“At all times, I have not acted as a British Rapporteur but as an independent chair of the European Parliament’s LIBE committee, defending the position of the European Parliament and understanding the fact that there was no legal requirement for the footnote to be added by Council, but also understanding the tense political situation surrounding the general election in Spain.”
“I have done everything possible to suggest alternative wording which still mentions Gibraltar in the footnote.”
“I think it is sad that this attempt to remove me has been made preceded by huge pressure from Spanish politicians and press.”
“I hope I have been able to stand up to this bullying, both for the integrity of the European Parliament’s procedures and the integrity of the position of Gibraltar, which had nothing to do with this visa waiver file.”
Although Spain succeeded in its aim to oust Mr Moraes, the committee coordinators who removed him were by no means unified on the issue during a heated meeting behind closed doors.
Sources in Brussels told the Chronicle that MEPs from other groups expressed strong support for Mr Moraes and voiced concern that taking the unprecedented step of removing a rapporteur on the basis of nationality risked setting a dangerous precedent.
But there was also concern that failure to unblock the impasse risked derailing the draft regulation, which seeks to ensure that Britons – including those from Gibraltar – are able to travel throughout Europe for short periods without the need for a visa, as long as the UK reciprocates.
Even so, some MEPs closely associated with the file were concerned about the underlying implications of the decision for the EU’s legislative process.
Petr Ježek, an independent Czech MEP who sits on the LIBE committee and worked on the visa file, said he was “deeply disappointed” with the outcome.
“I disassociate myself with this process and consider it scandalous that such a decision has been taken purely on the basis of the nationality and therefore the assumed bias of the rapporteur,” he said.
“To be clear, the rapporteur represented entirely fairly the European Parliament’s position on this file.”
And he added: “By forcing the removal of its rapporteur, who was faithfully representing the parliament’s position, the European Parliament has shot itself in the foot.”
“Furthermore, if the parliament than abandons its position, which was adopted unanimously in the LIBE Committee, and accepts the Council’s entirely unhelpful position on Gibraltar, which is unrelated to the purpose of the regulation, it will then have shot itself in the head.”
“This will imply that the parliament is not needed to draft legislation, that it could be abolished, and that the Council should alone decide on EU legislation.”
In Gibraltar, Chief Minister Fabian Picardo said the decision to remove Mr Moraes was “unhelpful, unfair and unwise”
“Mr Moraes was not just defending the British Citizens of Gibraltar,” Mr Picardo said.
“He was defending the decision of the European Parliament, which has, in effect, now folded in the face of pressure from the European Council, thereby entirely castrating the Parliament’s role in the trilogue process.”
“This is short sighted and a reward to the nationalistic reasoning that has been deployed against Mr Moraes.”
“The people of Gibraltar will not forget the excellent work that Claude Moraes has done.”
“Neither will we forget those who have conspired to put their nationalistic footnotes over the rights of people.”
“This has been a disgraceful episode in the procedure of the European Parliament and the sort of behaviour that gives succour to the cause of euroscepticism around the EU.”
“Shame on all those who have conspired to remove Claude Moraes. History will show that when the time came, they chose the wrong side of the argument.”
The draft legislation will return to a trilogue meeting on Tuesday morning, where the impasse is expected to be resolved so that the regulation can be adopted ahead of April 12, in case the UK and Gibraltar crash out of the EU without an agreement.
The UK and Gibraltar have opposed Gibraltar’s description as a “colony” in the text but have underlined that it has no legal impact or effect.
MAIN PHOTO: © European Union 2019 – Source : EP