Brexit: EU law strengthens Spanish hand in Gibraltar dispute

As Brexit day looms, the question of how to handle Britain's border with Ireland has dominated the debate over the withdrawal agreement.

Brexit: EU law strengthens Spanish hand in Gibraltar dispute
Photo: AFP

But now a new EU law has shone a light on the future of another tricky frontier, that between Spain and the British territory of Gibraltar.   

On Thursday, the European parliament approved a text permitting Britons visa-free visits to the EU even in the event of a “no deal” Brexit.   

This wasn't controversial, but an eight-word phrase nestling in a footnote to the text has provoked anger in the British port city at the mouth of the Mediterranean.

“Gibraltar is a colony of the British Crown,” it reads, before noting the “controversy” between Madrid and London over Gibraltar's sovereignty.   

Gibraltar is indeed listed by the United Nations as “non self-governing territory”, one of 17 around the world “that remain to be decolonised.”   

But Britain — and Gibraltar's government — rejects the term “colony”. Officials dubbed it part of the “United Kingdom family” during the Brexit debate.

READ MORE: Gibraltar after Brexit: why Spain, not Ireland will decide the UK’s fate

British MEP Julia Reid accused Spanish colleagues of “hijacking” the law with “no mandate from parliament to question the sovereignty of Gibraltar.”   

The first minister of Gibraltar, Fabian Picardo, furiously denounced the “extreme pressure exerted by Spain and the bullying tactics of Spanish MEPs.”   

“This is a disgraceful state of affairs,” he declared.   

But the British fury only underscored the success of the Spanish manoeuvre and the underlined how Brexit has already eroded London's standing in Brussels.

Making things clear

Luis Marco Aguiriano, Spain's minister for European Affairs, hailed the “very political and symbolic nature” of the footnote to the visa law.   

“This is the first time that an EU text has included the very clear name of 'colony' for the Gibraltarian territory,” he told Radio Onda Cero.   

“Brexit is a negative process but, indeed, as far as the Gibraltar issue is concerned, it is making it possible to make things clear, once and for all.”   

Spain says when it joined the European Union in 1986 London imposed membership that consigned its claim on Gibraltar to the “drawer of history”.   

Now, with Britain leaving the club and Spain staying in, Madrid has seized the chance to press its case.

“This is an important change in the EU's position on the Gibraltar issue,”said Camino Mortera, a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.

“Once the UK leaves the EU, the 27 obviously have to side with the club members, and not with the outgoing side,” she told AFP.   

Gibraltar, known as “The Rock”, a strategic 6.5-square-kilometre (2.5-square-mile) peninsula, was captured by an Anglo-Dutch fleet in 1704 and ceded to Britain in 1713.

Spain has a long-standing claim on the territory, but local voters have twice, in 1967 and 2002, overwhelmingly voted to remain British.   

In June 2016, however, they also voted by a massive 96 percent for Britain to remain in the EU, only to see the British electorate as a whole reject this.   

Now, with Brexit Day officially set for next week, London is finding in its relations with both Spain and Ireland that the Union sides with its continuing members.

Spanish MEP Esteban Gonzalez Pons, defending the legal text, put this case very bluntly.

“The British have decided to leave. It makes no sense that, in addition to leaving, they want to decide what our position should be,” he said.   

Analysts do not expect Madrid to mount an immediate drive to reclaim Gibraltar or to push for joint sovereignty, but its hand has been strengthened.   

And when post-Brexit Britain comes back to Brussels to negotiate a new political and economic relationship, Spain will wield a veto over any treaty.   

“The only thing it wants to make clear is that it is Spain that has to say things about Gibraltar,” said Salvador Llaudes, of the Elcano Royal Institute.   

In March, for example, Spain signed a tax treaty with Britain that addressed some of its concerns over tax evasion and money-laundering in Gibraltar.

And now it seems that when it continues to press its issues, it will have the weight of Europe at its back.

By AFP's Toni Cerdá and Dave Clark

READ MORE Brexit: EU waives visas for Brits despite Gibraltar row

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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.