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‘Colony’ reference raises temperature in European Parliament debate

The European Council’s controversial footnote describing Gibraltar as “a colony” will be discussed again on Wednesday in three-way talks with the European Parliament and the European Commission, in a bid to unlock crucial legislation on reciprocal measures to ensure visa-free travel for Britons and EU citizens after Brexit.

The footnote was introduced by the Council earlier this month at Spain’s insistence but the legislation has stalled after the committee handling the draft for the European Parliament rejected the inclusion of the clause.

The Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs [LIBE], through its British rapporteur for this file, the Labour MEP Claude Moraes, has made clear that the clause is unacceptable because it was not in the draft approved unanimously by MEPs on January 29, or in the original document prepared by the European Commission.

“As rapporteur with a mandate from the committee, my position has been to obviously defend the original mandate in negotiations with Council, and this is what I’ve tried to do,” Mr Moraes told a meeting of the LIBE committee on Tuesday.

He said the disagreement on Gibraltar had already been discussed at three trilogues and that he had put forward alternative wording on each of those occasions, but that this was rejected by the European Council.

“We have a trilogue tomorrow [meaning Wednesday] where I hope some progress can be made,” he said.

Mr Moraes has proposed “a compromise text” that avoids any used of the word colony and refers instead to “…disagreement existing between the Kingdom of Spain and the United Kingdom on the demarcation of the border of Gibraltar…”

Mr Moraes acknowledged the “high sensitivity” of the discussion but said the inclusion of the reference to Gibraltar as “a colony” was an unnecessary complication in an important proposal.

“I felt that the footnote was not legally necessary for the adoption of the file,” he said.

“It was not relevant for the file to be adopted, it was not in the Commission proposal and it was not in the parliament’s text which was unanimously adopted by the committee.”

“What I’m trying to do as rapporteur is find alternative wording to seek a compromise.”

But the British MEP faced a barrage of criticism from Spanish MEPs, who said that he should not be handling this important file given that the UK is leaving the EU.

The toughest criticism came from the Partido Popular MEPs, but the Socialist representative on the committee shared similar views too and at times the discussion sounded more like a UN meeting than an EU debate.

“To describe Gibraltar as a colony is nothing more than to acknowledge the truth and the body of resolutions and jurisprudence,” said the PP’s Agustin Diaz de Mera.

“We are debating a reference that is correctly used as a footnote.”

He said Mr Moraes should do “the reasonable thing” and step aside as rapporteur, adding that a country that is leaving the EU could not dictate to the ones who were remaining.

His PP colleague Teresa Jimenez-Becerril was even sharper in her criticism, insisting: “I genuinely believe the UK is manipulating the controversy over Gibraltar."

“I believe the UK is sabotaging this agreement and trying to manipulate this committee and trying to manipulate this parliament.”

The Socialist MEP Juan Fernando López Aguilar reminded the committee that the UK was leaving the EU and that the footnote had been included unanimously by the remaining 27 member states.

“Gibraltar is not an integral part of the UK and Gibraltar is not an overseas territory,” he told the committee.

“According to international law and UN resolutions, Gibraltar is a colony of the United Kingdom still to be decolonised and over which there exists a historical dispute between the United Kingdom, which is leaving the European Union, and the Kingdom of Spain, which is staying in the European Union.”

But the Spanish MEPs were alone in their stance and other politicians from other countries offered starkly different views.

Czech MEP Petr Jezek said the Council had “created this problem” by insisting on using the world colony, which is not used in any other Brexit-related legislation or in the EU negotiating guidelines.

“If, after a unanimous vote in favour of our position in LIBE, we then accept the Council’s superfluous approach, then we may as well disband this committee and parliament and go skiing,” he said.

“Due to the inflexible approach of the Council in these negotiations on this one word, we are moving into dangerous territory, not just for UK citizens who would like to travel to the EU without having to apply for visas, but also our own EU citizens who would like to travel to the UK.”

“This is completely unacceptable.”

Mr Jezek said he supported the adopted LIBE position and Mr Moraes’ handling of the negotiations. In doing so, he was not alone.

German MEP Birgit Sippel suggested the Spanish insistence on including the word colony, and the reactions of the MEPs on the LIBE committee, were aimed at a domestic audience.

“My impression is that approaching more and more to elections, more and more people…are getting more and more nervous and not all the debates are based on facts,” she said.

“Some expressions I heard this morning in this debate, I hope that colleagues will rethink what they have said.”

Dutch MEP Auke Zijlstra, the shadow rapporteur for this file, also backed Mr Moraes and acknowledged that the European Council itself “is having problems with this situation”.

“I stick to the text of the European Parliament,” he said.

“The rapporteur is remaining neutral. People are reacting emotionally, they are showing their feelings. Perhaps they shouldn’t be so vociferous in voicing their opinions.”

MAIN PHOTO: Claude Moraes during the debate.