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Brexit

MEPs fear Spanish pressure on ‘colony’ clause could ‘further poison Brexit atmosphere’

A British MEP has spoken of an orchestrated attempt by Spanish MEPs to hound him out of a key role on post-Brexit legislation for visa-free travel because of a row over Gibraltar.

Labour MEP Claude Moraes [pictured above] said he had become a target for Spanish anger after a European Parliament committee he chairs blocked an attempt by Madrid to include a footnote in the legislation describing Gibraltar as “a colony”.

On Tuesday morning, the MEP was asked to step down by the European Parliament’s president, Antonio Tajani, on the instigation of Spanish MEP Esteban González Pons, the centre-right European People’s Party, the Socialists and the liberal ALDE group.

Mr Moraes refused and yesterday, a Czech MEP who sits on the committee spoke of his shock at the latest developments.

“I can hardly believe he is being asked to step down by the European Parliament’s president on the insistence of MEPs from one country,” Petr Ježek told the Chronicle.

“I would see it as very unfortunate, not reflecting the situation, not fair and with potential to further poison the Brexit atmosphere.”

Senior Spanish MEPs have been seeking to push Mr Moraes out of his role as the European Parliament’s rapporteur, a role in which his job is to represent MEPs’ views on the draft legislation.

They argued there was a “conflict of interest” because Mr Moraes is a British national.

Spanish media have also targeted Mr Moraes in recent weeks, blaming him personally for stalling legislation which is seen as vital to protect the interests of British and EU citizens after Brexit.

But Mr Moraes has insisted throughout that he is representing the views of all MEPs on the civil liberties committee in the European Parliament, which unanimously approved the draft legislation without the inclusion of the controversial footnote.

The footnote was introduced subsequently by the European Council at Spain’s insistence but the legislation has stalled after the civil liberties committee rejected the reference to colony.

The proposal is now stuck at “trilogue”, a three-way dialogue between the parliament, the European Commission and the European Council, which represents all 27 member states.

“The inclusion of this footnote on Gibraltar was a political act which is now being defended by 27 member states and the Commission in an unprecedented way,” Mr Moraes told The Guardian yesterday.

“For five weeks the pressure has been systematic.”

“The attacks in the Spanish press have been very brutal, very personal, and consistently so.”

“There has been pressure by all the political groups in the European parliament with Spanish members.”

“There have been meetings where I have been attacked systematically – it has been an intimidatory atmosphere.”

Mr Moraes said he had stuck to his position because he received support from “very many” MEPs, who realised that the row had a political context given the general election in Spain.

“But my position is that if the European parliament submits to this sort of behaviour when there is a national election on, the whole raison d’être of the European parliament is removed,” he said.

“Legislation is supposed to be made on the basis of the legislation.”

“This was contingency legislation without a political element. But there has been an opportunistic line taken which has put me in an impossible position. It is an abuse of power.”

On Wednesday, Mr Moraes was still in post as rapporteur and Mr Ježek, said he could not predict what would happen next.

“Rapporteur Moraes and the European Parliament team are defending the European Parliament’s position adopted by committee 53:0,” Mr Ježek told the Chronicle.

“We even made a number of far-reaching gestures and proposals to Council, [but] five times it said just no.”

“It’s difficult to see how it will evolve.”

The Gibraltar Government has also been closely following the developments and said it stood firmly by Mr Moraes and his colleagues on the civil liberties committee.

“Claude Moraes has been standing up for what he thinks is right,” Chief Minister Fabian Picardo told the Chronicle.

“Asking him to stand down because of pressure from Gonzalez Pons and his compadres goes against the most basic principles of why the European Parliament exists.”

“A person directly elected to defend the rights of British citizens should not have to face opprobrium or sanction for defending the rights of British citizens.”

If approved, the EU’s proposal 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.

But if the impasse is not broken and the UK crashes out, British nationals seeking to the ravel to an EU country for fewer than 90 days would be required to pay €60 for a Schengen visa that can take two weeks to be authorised.

If the House of Commons finally backs the Prime Minister’s withdrawal agreement, British nationals would continue to be treated as EU citizens during a 21-month transition period, providing more time for a solution on the visa exemption to be found.