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GIBRALTAR

Spain row over Gibraltar ‘colony’ threatens to derail Brits’ visa-free travel to EU after Brexit

British tourists may be required to pay €60 for a visa to travel to EU countries post-Brexit after Spain’s demands over the status of Gibraltar once again derailed Brussels’ preparations for Brexit.

Spain row over Gibraltar 'colony' threatens to derail Brits' visa-free travel to EU after Brexit
A row over the status of the Rock could mean visas are required to cross. Photo: AFP

Plans for legislation exempting UK nationals from requiring the travel permit after March 29th have stalled after the European Parliament knocked back Spanish demands to describe Gibraltar as a “colony”.

Spain insisted, and won reluctant support from the other 26 member states, that the draft legislation include a footnote detailing the tiny peninsula at its foot as a “colony”.

But on Wednesday morning the European parliament rejected the language proposed by the council of the European Union, the body that represents the member states.

Unless the impasse is resolved, it could mean that British citizens– including Gibraltarians crossing over the border to La Linea – may need to pay £52 for a visa to travel to Europe, even for short visits.

The latest development came within hours of Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell defending the government’s handling of Brexit in the Spanish congress. He insisted that Spain had pushed for an advantage and that, “for the first time in a long time”, Gibraltar had been described as “a colony” in an EU document.

READ ALSO: Gibraltar accuses Spain of brandishing 'whip' over Brexit

At the same time In Brussels, however, MEPs said the controversial clause had not been in the original draft prepared by the European Commission and given initial approval by the parliament, but was subsequently introduced by the European Council at Spain’s insistence.

It marked the third time the member states’ proposal has been sent back by MEPs and now brings the possibility that the legislation will not be in place by the time Brexit deadline arrives on March 29.

Petr Ježek, a Czech MEP who is part of the parliament’s negotiating team for the proposal, accused Spain of “playing with fire” with just weeks to go before the UK leaves the EU.

“The negotiation is stuck,” he told The Guardian. “Brexit will hurt immensely and we should do everything possible to soften the impact rather than create further problems for half a billion people. If there is no agreement, and no visa exemption for the UK, the British government may adopt a similar approach – and that would be a disaster.”

Ježek said the European parliament’s position had been adopted unanimously and that MEPs could not accept “colonial language which has no place in the world”.

Instead they suggest the footnote merely states that there is a “controversy between Spain and the United Kingdom concerning the sovereignty of Gibraltar”.

if the impasse is not broken and the UK crashes out on March 29, British nationals seeking to travel to an EU country for fewer than 90 days would be required to pay €60 (€52) for a Schengen visa that can take two weeks to be authorised.

If the House of Commons ratify’s Prime Minister Theresa May’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.

The agreement states 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.

ANALYSIS: What does the new Gibraltar-Brexit deal really mean?

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BRITS IN EUROPE

Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

After years of campaigns and promises British citizens living abroad finally won the lifelong right to vote in UK general elections in April 2022. But campaigners say more needs to be done to allow all those Britons abroad to be able cast their votes easily.

Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

What’s in the law?

The Elections Act 2022 introduced several changes to the current legislation on electoral participation. Among these, it removed the rule by which British citizens lose their voting rights in the UK if they have lived abroad for more than 15 years

The new rules also abolished the requirement to have been previously registered in the UK electoral roll to become an overseas voter. In addition, the registration in the electoral roll will now last up to three years instead of only one year.

It is estimated that these changes could increase the number of overseas voter registrations by some 3 million. But the way new measures will be applied in practice is still to be defined.

READ ALSO: ‘Mixed feelings’ – British citizens in Europe finally get right to vote for life

Defining the practicalities

Under the new law, Britons living abroad will have to register to vote in the last place they were registered in the UK. This means that people who have never lived in the UK will be ineligible to vote, regardless of how long they have been overseas, while those who left when they were children will be able to use a parent or guardian’s address.

But given that the UK does not require residents to register with local councils, how to prove previous UK residence? “Typical documents accepted as a proof of residence are Council tax or utilities bills, but not everyone will have them or will have kept them in an international move,” says Fiona Godfrey, co-founder of the British in Europe coalition.

Ballot papers are pictured in stacks in a count centre as part of the 2019 UK general election. (Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN / AFP)

Other questions concern how people will effectively cast their ballot. UK citizens overseas will be able to vote by post or by proxy or in person at their polling station if they are in the UK at the time of the election. However, few people are likely to travel to the UK for an election and in the past there have problems and delays with postal voting.

The Electoral Commission has recommended that overseas electors appoint a proxy to vote on their behalf. But who could that be for people who have been away from their constituency for a long time?

New secondary legislation will have to answer these questions, defining how to be included in the electoral roll and how to exercise the voting right in practice.

According to British in Europe, the government should present draft legislation in the first half of the year so that the parliament can adopt it before summer and registrations of overseas voters can start in the autumn.

British in Europe survey

British in Europe are currently running a survey to understand the difficulties UK citizens abroad may face in the registration and voting process, as well as their intention to participate in elections.

The survey asks for instance which documents people can access to prove their previous residence in the UK, what problems they had voting in the past, and if and how they plan to vote in the future.

“We need to get an up-to-date picture of British citizens living around the world and have information to make recommendations to the government, as it prepares secondary legislation,” Godfrey said. “If millions of people will exercise their voting rights, there will be consequences for council registration offices, post office and authorities that will manage the process, among other things” she argued.

The right to vote concerns only UK parliamentary elections and national referendums, not elections in the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, or at local level.

The survey is open to UK citizens living anywhere in the world and is available at this link.

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