By Michael L Jarvis, London UK
A row between the British government and the European Union over Gibraltar has thrown into stark relief the relationship - or the perception thereof - between the UK and the Overseas Territories (OTs).
An official European Union document has referred to Gibraltar, one of the OTs, as a ‘colony’.
That elicited a prompt and unequivocal official British government response to the effect; Gibraltar is NOT a colony. It is family.
The bone of contention is a document dealing with another vexatious EU/UK issue; Brexit and the matter of visa-free travel for their respective citizens across their borders after Brexit D-day, March 29th this year.
In that document the EU describes Gibraltar as “a colony of the British Crown.”
That conjured up images of, well, colonialism. And empire. And in the case of the UK’s Caribbean overseas territories - slavery.
"Gibraltar is not a colony and it is completely inappropriate to describe in this way.
"Gibraltar is a full part of the UK family and has a mature and modern constitutional relationship with the UK,” a UK government spokesman affirmed.
When confronted, the issue was sidestepped by a senior European Commission official.
Asked to explain the use of the term ‘colony’ he would only refer the matter back to the European Council, a separate arm of the EU, which he said had written the text.
But, Fabian Picardo, the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, declared:
"It's unnecessarily provocative and it's pejorative to describe the relationship between Gibraltar and the United Kingdom as being 'colonial'," he told the UK’s Sky News.
"In fact, it's a relationship which is now modern. It's mature. It's one borne from the partnership and the reality is that Spain I think is still in the mentality of the 1950s and 60s - but we're not.
"The people of Gibraltar are full British citizens and we feel very much a full part of the British family of nations," asserted Chief Minister Picardo.
The structure of this family relationship is presently under review through an ongoing inquiry by the UK parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC).
The strong affirmation of familial affiliation expressed by the Gibraltar leader, has been comparatively less expressive by many of his fellow British Overseas Territories leaders and others, especially from the Caribbean, who made submissions to the FAC.
If anything, on their part it seemed to be more of a plea to be seen and treated as a full and integral part of that family and not a distant relative or appendage.
The outcome and recommendations of the FAC’s inquiry are expected to give further clarity to the nature of the relationship between the UK and its Overseas Territories, especially in a modern and post-Brexit era.
Its remit is to “consider the resilience of the Overseas Territories (OTs), how effectively the FCO (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) manages its responsibilities towards them, and how it envisages their future. The inquiry is likely to be structured around overarching themes but may look at individual OTs, as and when appropriate.”
In a recent submission to the inquiry this past January, on request of the FAC, the French government explained the relationship with its overseas territories.
“There are five overseas departments and regions(DROMS)…the whole of Overseas France are represented in the National Assembly and Senate.”
The Dutch for their part refer to their overseas territories as Kingdom Partners and Municipalities.
At the time of this writing, the text of the EU document with its inclusion of the nomenclature ‘colony’ pertaining to Gibraltar - and by extension other British Overseas Territories - had not been amended.
At the beginning of this commentary it’s stated that “a row between the British government and the European Union over Gibraltar has thrown into stark relief the relationship - or the perception thereof - between the UK and its Overseas Territories.”
Perhaps it might be more politically correct to at least replace the ownership-implying pronoun ‘its’ - which is itself a ‘possessive’ pronoun - with something more ‘family-friendly’ or just slightly aloof, depending your perception.
By one word here, and similarly one word by whichever EU division was responsible for the authorship of the document in question, a veritable can of worms, historical associations and constitutional relations has been stirred up.
Officially, there are no longer official references to colonies in the current British official lexicon.
Usage of the word colony is frowned upon in Whitehall and resented in the Overseas Territories with the myriad degrees of relationship definition applied to citizenship status.
In its own submission to the FAC inquiry into the future of the overseas territories, the Foreign and Commonwealth which is the link between the OTs and the British family, reminds of the current status of that relationship.
The OTs it said: “…are largely self-governing territories under British sovereignty but are not constitutionally part of the UK. Most people living in the OTs are British nationals. By definition, the OTs are not sovereign so have no international legal personality separate from the UK.”
The outcome of the FAC’s inquiry is awaited.