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Brexit

European Parliament approves draft law for post-Brexit visa-free travel, colony clause included

Plenary session - VOTES followed by explanations of votes

The European Council has been branded “irresponsible” over its inflexible position on draft legislation approved by the European Parliament on Thursday in which Gibraltar, at Spain’s insistence, was described as “a colony”.

The accusation was levelled by Sergei Stanishev, the European Parliament’s representative on the legislation, which aims to ensure Britons can travel throughout the EU without visas in the event of a hard Brexit as long as the UK reciprocates for EU citizens.

After weeks of controversy over the Gibraltar reference, a plenary session of the European Parliament approved the draft by 502 votes to 81, with 29 abstentions.

A last ditch attempt to pass a motion removing the footnote was defeated.

The footnote states that "Gibraltar is a colony of the British Crown" and that "there is a controversy between Spain and the United Kingdom concerning the sovereignty over Gibraltar, a territory for which a solution has to be reached.”

“In the end it was Parliament who demonstrated responsibility in order to avoid chaos, caused by the introduction of a visa regime, for British and European citizens.”

The European Council maintained its position on the controversial footnote under pressure from Spain, which had also lobbied intensively and, ultimately, successfully to remove the European Parliament’s first rapporteur on this file, UK MEP Claude Moraes.

Mr Moraes has spoken openly in recent days of the pressure he was subjected to by Spanish MEPs and the Spanish media.

In a tweet after the vote yesterday he called out Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez for his triumphalist reaction to the outcome of the vote, insisting it was the product of “a dirty process with no legitimacy”.

Spain trumpeted the vote as a triumph for Spanish diplomacy, highlighting the fact that it was the first time that the EU had referred to Gibraltar as a colony in a regulation.

But there was no doubt too that despite the overwhelming parliamentary support for the measure, Spain’s politicking had rankled MEPs.

“This is an important step for guaranteeing visa-free travel between EU and UK after Brexit, especially in case of no deal,” Mr Stanishev said.

“It is no secret that the negotiations were blocked over Council’s persistence on the Gibraltar footnote, a matter unrelated to the essence of the report.”

“This irresponsible approach seriously undermines the spirit of sincere cooperation between the EU institutions.”

“In the end it was Parliament who demonstrated responsibility in order to avoid chaos, caused by the introduction of a visa regime, for British and European citizens.”

The reference to colony is contained in a single footnote in the regulation and has no legal bearing on Gibraltar.

Marco Aguiriano, Spain’s state secretary for Europe at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, said the inclusion of the footnote was of “political and symbolic” significance, but acknowledged that it would have no impact on Gibraltar’s political reality.

Conservative Home Affairs spokesman Daniel Dalton described the EU’s move instigated by Spain as "unacceptable, unnecessary and not what you expect of a close partner”.

“This politically motivated affair undermines the EU's standing as a union that claims to champion democracy, self-determination and human rights around the world,” Mr Dalton said.

“It has allowed the Spanish government to hijack European legislation for its own ends as it heads into a difficult domestic election.”

“It is vitally important that we protect the right of UK and EU citizens to continue travelling visa-free in the event of a no deal Brexit.”

“But we could not vote for this report and accept a claim on part of our territory. The people of both Britain and Gibraltar would have expected nothing less of us.”

Conservative delegation leader and Gibraltar MEP Ashley Fox, who together with 38 other MEPs unsuccessfully called for the vote to be delayed, said: “Gibraltar is a British Overseas Territory with its own government, not a colony. And its people have made it crystal clear that is how they want to remain.”

“Spain and the EU can posture all they like, but Gibraltar's sovereignty is not negotiable. It is disappointing they were willing to jeopardise their citizens' right to visa-free travel post-Brexit in order to make this futile gesture.”

UK MEP Julie Girling, who also backed the amendment to remove the colony reference, argued that “Parliament had colluded at the highest level to replace a legitimately agreed text” and that the process had been “hijacked by a politically motivated intervention from Spain”.

While the amendment was unsuccessful, significant support was garnered across the parliament and the point was made clear, she said after the vote.

However, Mrs Girling highlighted her concern that if the UK leaves the EU, there is a real possibility of Gibraltar becoming the target of an unrestrained Madrid.

Chief Minister Fabian Picardo thanked the MEPs from many different EU countries who had stood up for Gibraltar over the past few weeks.

“Whilst the result of today’s vote is of course disappointing, the Government takes the view that the Spanish Government has lost more during this process than it has won,” Mr Picardo said.

“The underhand tactics deployed by the Spanish Government have infuriated EU policy makers and further exposed Spain’s anachronistic obsession with Gibraltar.”

“On the other hand, Gibraltar’s modern constitutional relationship with the UK, based on freewill, the democratically expressed wishes of the Gibraltarians and the right to self-determination, remains intact.”

“This will continue to be the case no matter what an EU document may state.”

Following plenary’s approval yesterday, the draft legislation will have to be formally adopted by the Council of Ministers next week and must be published in the Official Journal of the EU before 12 April, to prepare for a possible no-deal Brexit on that date.

The legislation will apply from the day following the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. From that date, UK nationals who are British citizens will not be required to get a visa for stays in the EU of up to 90 days in any 180-day period.

The United Kingdom will be included in the list of more than 60 third-countries and territories whose nationals do not need to request a visa to enter the EU for business, tourism or to visit relatives or friends. The visa exemption does not provide for the right to work in the EU.

The EU will grant the visa waiver to UK citizens unilaterally, but provided that EU nationals are also given visa-free access for short business or tourist trips to the UK when it becomes a non-EU country.

The visa waiver will be applicable in all EU member states - except Ireland, which has its own visa policy - and in the Schengen-associated countries Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. Ireland and the UK have a specific bilateral arrangement which provides for visa-free travel between the two countries.

MAIN PHOTO: European Parliament/Jan VAN DE VEL