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 was 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 angry rejection of the description, officials disclosed.
“It is completely unacceptable to describe Gibraltar in this way,” the prime minister’s official 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.”
The UK would resist any attempt to negotiate the status of the territory even if it succeeded in reopening the withdrawal agreement treaty, the spokesman added.
The Conservative MEP Daniel Dalton accused Spain’s government of treating Gibraltar “as a political football”. “To read that EU officials have made the same mistake is at best insensitive, if not breathtakingly incompetent,” he said.
Spain ceded Gibraltar to Britain in perpetuity 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, along with all other 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, much to the irritation of other member states. 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 was 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. The agreed footnote on the visa legislation signed off by ambassadors now notes that “Gibraltar is a colony of the British crown”.
“There is a controversy between Spain and the United Kingdom concerning the sovereignty of Gibraltar, a territory for which a solution has to be reached in light of the relevant resolutions and decisions of the general assembly of the United Nations”, it added.
The UK has requested that a formal minute of its rejection of the description be added to the EU’s records.
Sources said the UK government made the point that Gibraltarians had determined the political sovereignty of the Rock in a referendum. It also rejected the characterisation of there being a “controversy” over the Rock.
The minute added that UK regretted “that our approaches to Spain to develop more helpful and appropriate language had not been reciprocated”.
Dr Tanzil Chowdhury, from Queen Mary’s school of law, said the EU’s claim that Gibraltar was a colony “has weight, given the UK parliament and crown still retain unlimited powers to legislate for the Rock and that it has been listed by the UN as a non-self-governing territory since 1946”.
“However, as Gibraltar has a high level of self-government and GDP, a flourishing tourism and gaming industry and is conventionally a party to its own trade deals, the picture is more intricate,” he said. “Indeed, whilst others may reasonably label it as a colony, the Gibraltarians have voted to remain under UK sovereignty.”
Despite the flare-up, the decision means UK citizens entering the EU’s Schengen area for up to 90 days in any 180 days should be granted visa-free travel.
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The EU said, however, that British tourists would lose that right if the UK government imposed visa requirements 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.”