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Colony footnote is a Pyrrhic ‘victory’ for Spain

Photo by Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

Spain may have got its way in the row over the ‘colony’ footnote but it is worth noting a few points to cut through the ridiculous grandstanding of Spanish MEPs and media yesterday.

Gibraltar is on the UN list of non-self-governing territories, that much is true. But this is solely because the UN’s criteria for removing territories from that list are outdated.

Twice a year, the UK and Gibraltar remind the UN that the constitutional relationship between them is modern, non-colonial and based on a partnership and shared goals.

No one who understands the reality of modern Gibraltar could possibly describe the Rock as a colony. It is Spain that is acting in a colonial manner by putting territory over people.

The saga over the visa regulation has laid bare Madrid’s obsession with Gibraltar for all the EU to see.

The footnote, let us be clear, has no legal effect. Gibraltar has not suddenly become ‘a colony’ just because of a reference in an EU document.

It is important to note too that the row was as much about the use of colonial language as it was about the European Parliament bowing down to a European Council that had itself succumbed to political interference on a crucial document. At its core, this was an institutional tussle.

Spain tried to make this row personal and focused its ire on UK MEP Claude Moraes, who spoke over the past week of the intense pressure he had been subjected to amid accusations of bias.

But the reality was different and more nuanced. Moraes was not trying to impose his own views on the parliament, but rather reflecting the position adopted unanimously by the committee he was tasked to represent.

That committee had unanimously approved a draft text in which the word colony did not appear, but the European Council, pressed by Spain, was trying to get the parliament to accept a politically-loaded amendment that MEPs had not voted on.

Yesterday, when the LIBE committee voted on whether Moraes should be replaced as its spokesman on the file, there were 29 votes in favour, including many from the large number of Spanish MEPs who showed up for the vote. But 16 MEPs from across the EU voted against, while another three abstained.

It was by no means unanimous, in other words.

The new rapporteur on the file, Bulgarian MEP Sergei Stanishev, was clear that the committee was finally accepting the colony clause in order to protect the interests of EU and British citizens.

The Council, at Spain's insistence, had been inflexible and was putting the interests of British and EU citizens at risk. Faced with a fast-looming Brexit deadline and the possibility of a hard Brexit on April 12, MEPs had no option but to accept the footnote.

“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,” Mr Stanishev said. “This is not in the spirit of European cooperation.”

Other MEPs said the legislation was "ludicrous", accused the Spanish government of intransigence ahead of national elections later this month, and complained about how the European Council which brings together member states had bulldozed the European Parliament on the issue.

The colony row was not a clear-cut "victory" for Spain, whatever Spanish MEPs and media said yesterday. Spain’s old-fashioned bullying approach to Gibraltar was exposed in all its ugly detail and many MEPs were left shocked by what they had witnessed.

Outside the EU, Gibraltar’s position in the bloc is clearly weakened and Spain’s voice will carry more clout. That is both understandable and inevitable, given that the UK is leaving the club. But the more Madrid presses its position on Gibraltar, the more other countries will understand how unreasonable and mistaken it is.

In the meantime, there is some good news to come out of all this.

Setting aside all the noise over this issue, at least neither EU nor British citizens, including those from Gibraltar, will require visas after Brexit whenever they travel into the EU or Britain for less than three months.

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