Brexit: Gibraltar 'colony' row flares as EU makes travel visa-free for Britons
A straightforward change in EU law guaranteeing visa-free travel for Britons in Europe after Brexit has sparked a diplomatic row after Brussels described Gibraltar as “a colony of the British Crown” in its no-deal legislation.
The footnote containing the contentious description of the Rock has been attached to the EU’s regulation on the insistence of Spain, with whom the UK has been in dispute over Gibraltar for three centuries.
During a meeting on Friday morning with his EU counterparts, the UK’s ambassador in Brussels, Sir Tim Barrow, expressed Downing Street’s rejection of the description, officials disclosed.
“Gibraltar is not a colony and it is completely inappropriate to describe in this way,” a UK government spokesman said. “Gibraltar is a full part of the UK family and has a mature and modern constitutional relationship with the UK. This will not change due to our exit from the EU. All parties should respect the people of Gibraltar’s democratic wish to be British,”
The Conservative MEP, Daniel Dalton, said: “Spain’s government likes to use Gibraltar as a political football. To read that EU officials have made the same mistake is at best insensitive, if not breathtakingly incompetent.”
Gibraltar was ceded in perpetuity by Spain to the British in the treaty of Utrecht, in 1713. It formally became a Crown colony in 1830 but its constitutional status was rejigged over the centuries as the British empire receded.
In 1983, as with all the former Crown colonies, Gibraltar became a dependent overseas territory only to be rebadged again as a British overseas territory in 2002.
It has its own parliament, with 17 representatives, but its head of state is the Queen, who is represented by the governor of Gibraltar, responsible to UK government for the Rock’s defence, internal security, foreign policy, and governance.
The row over the footnote has been bubbling for weeks. Spain initially wanted all the EU’s no deal legislation – drafted in case the UK leaves on 29 March without ratifying the withdrawal agreement – to note that Gibraltar is disputed and on a UN list of “non-self-governing territories… subject to decolonisation”.
That move was blocked by France, as French Polynesia and New Caledonia are also on that list, and a new formulation of words was found to satisfy Madrid.
Despite the flare-up, the decision by the EU means UK citizens entering the EU’s Schengen area for up to 90 days in any 180 days should be granted visa-free travel.
The EU warned, however, that British tourists would lose that right if the UK government imposed visa requirements at any time on any of its member states.
A statement said: “The government of the United Kingdom has stated that it does not intend to require a visa from EU citizens travelling to the UK for short stays.
“In the event that the United Kingdom introduces a visa requirement for nationals of at least one member state in the future, the existing reciprocity mechanism would apply and the three institutions and the member states would commit to act without delay in applying the mechanism.”