Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Britain's Attorney General set to resist Spain

Madrid continues with EU vote case • One million Commonwealth voters affected • Garcia voices GSLP/Liberal anger

A million Commonwealth citizens in Britain could be affected by Spain’s challenge to UK legislation that allows Gibraltar to vote in the European elections.

As reported in the Chronicle last month the issue is set down for hearing by the European Court of Justice, Luxembourg for July 5. But the Daily Telegraph, which also ran an editorial on Gibraltar, said yesterday that Lord Goldsmith QC, the Attorney General, will himself be defending the UK’s position.

The move highlights the significance Britain, which has just taken over the EU presidency, attaches to this issue.

The issue was also raised in the house of Assembly yesterday by Dr Joseph Garcia, the Opposition spokesman.

Electoral rights in elections to the European Parliament were extended to Gibraltar, when the United Kingdom adopted national legislation enabling the Gibraltar electorate to take part in these elections in May 2003, following the ‘Matthews v United Kingdom’ case.

Spain filed a complaint with the European Commission against the United Kingdom under Article 227 of the EC Treaty in July 2003.

According to Spain, the new UK legislation violates Articles 17, 19, 189 and 190 of the EC Treaty and Annex II to the 1976 Act.

In October 2003, the Commission invited the parties to find an amicable solution but nonetheless Spain brought an action against the United Kingdom before the European Court of Justice in March 2004.

Spain claims that the Court should:

— declare that, by enacting the 'European Parliament (Representation) Act 2003', the United Kingdom has failed to fulfil its obligations under the EC Treaty, as well as the 1976 Act concerning the Election of the representatives of the European Parliament by Direct Universal Suffrage.

— order the United Kingdom to pay the costs of these proceedings. Spain’s argument is that the European Parliament (Representation) Act 2003 recognises the right to vote in the elections to the European Parliament to persons who are not nationals of a Member State (i.e. the qualifying Common-wealth citizens residing in Gibraltar) and, therefore, says Spain, do not have the status of citizens of the Union.

In Spain’s view this is not acceptable and it asserts that there is a clear link between the citizenship of the Union and the right to vote and stand in European parliamentary elections.

It argues that the only persons who may exercise this right are the citizens of the Union and that granting the right to vote and stand in the elections to the European Parliament to persons who are not Union citizens implies a breach of the Union citizenship, as certain persons would enjoy the right to vote and stand for the European Parliament, but would not possess the other rights of Union citizenship.

In addition it argues that accepting Member States’ unilateral competence in conferring the right to vote and stand in European parliamentary elections would open the door to similar claims in other Member States.

Spain also objects to the fact that the UK legislation includes the territory of Gibraltar (not its electorate) in an existing electoral region in the United Kingdom.

Yesterday Dr Garcia said that the Opposition consider that the Spanish action is totally unacceptable. He noted that Commonwealth Citizens have been able to vote in European Parliamentary elections in the United Kingdom from the time that the first such elections took place in 1979.

"Indeed, they voted in 1989, 1994 and 1999. Before that Spain had joined Europe in 1986 and they raised no objection to the participation of Commonwealth Citizens in the three elections that took place immediately after they joined. It was only after the same United Kingdom franchise was extended to Gibraltar that Madrid became concerned,” he said.

Dr Garcia said that even though this action may have repercussions in the United Kingdom itself, “it is an action which is aimed at Gibraltar and which has come about as a result of the extension of the euro-franchise to Gibraltar”.

Dr Garcia said that the Opposition condemned the present Spanish Government for continuing with an action that had been commenced by their predecessors.

“It runs against the spirit of the European Union and the very basis of democracy itself. We trust that the whole House will share this sentiment and I am sure that we will, to use a well-worn phrase, monitor the situation closely.”

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