The first instructive point is that, although it was certainly not a major issue during the referendum, the dangers of Brexit for Gibraltar were pointed out by the Remain campaign. In May 2016 the then Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said:
“I genuinely believe that the threat of leaving the European Union is as big a threat to Gibraltar's future security and Gibraltar's future sovereignty as the more traditional threats that we routinely talk about.”
The reaction from Brexiters was furious. Liam Fox, now the International Trade Secretary, was enraged that the possibility should even have been mentioned, saying “I think there are limits to what you can and cannot say in any campaign that goes way beyond acceptable limits” (sic). All this was reported in the Daily Express under the inevitable headline about ‘Project Fear’.
We can now see that Hammond’s concern was well-founded, and that it was perfectly legitimate to raise it. The same, of course, can be said of most of what was dismissed as project fear, as I pointed out in my post on the triggering of Article 50.
Moreover, and this is the second instructive point, whilst Brexiters may have shouted it down during the campaign they cannot do so now. As the slogans and false claims meet reality, reality wins out. The EU have, as a matter of fact, decided to take this line and now it has to be dealt with. No amount of bluster or outrage can change that. Screaming headlines in the British press are not just ineffective against the EU but, even, harden feeling against the UK. So this is, in microcosm, indicative of the entire shift that has occurred as a result of the triggering of Article 50. As I wrote in my most recent post, Brexiters now have to take responsibility for the consequences of their decision.
The EU’s stance on Gibraltar is a lesson in realpolitik. Of course both the EU and individual member states such as Spain are going to seek to pursue their own interests. On the Gibraltar issue, the UK did exactly the same thing at the time of Spain’s accession to the EU in 1986 (insisting on an open border). Brexiters can, and do, decry this as ‘bullying’ and even, in their hermetically sealed logic, as ‘proving’ that it is right to leave. But that doesn’t change anything: welcome to the real world of international relations (to which irresponsible and ludicrous implications by Brexiters of possible military action contribute nothing good).
In fact, although attracting less headlines, the EU Council’s statement in several other ways underscored the reality of the power plays which will now unfold. In particular, the UK’s desire, expressed in the Article 50 letter, for parallel talks on exit and on future trade has been rebuffed. The latter will only occur once the EU deems that sufficient progress has been made on the former, although that is a softer position than insisting on the complete conclusion of exit talks before future talks. Similarly, the Brexiter fantasy of sector-by-sector access to the single market was emphatically squashed, as was the possibility of bi-lateral negotiations between the UK and individual EU-27 states.
None of this, however, makes the EU’s stance ‘punitive’, as this piece by Vincenzo Scarpetto of Open Europe explains, and it should be understood in the context of a negotiation as discussed in this excellent analysis by Peter Ungphakhorn. It just means that the UK cannot dictate terms in a vacuum as Brexiters imagine. Moreover, completely undiscussed as far as I am aware, section five of the statement makes it very clear that whilst the UK remains in the EU it must “remain loyal to the Union’s interests”, something which I suspect in the months to come will become a matter of some significance.
There is another lesson from Gibraltar row. Brexiters always seem to think that dealing with the EU means, primarily, dealing with Germany and to a lesser extent France. But although these are indeed very significant, the EU is an association of member states and is not ruled from Berlin. The failure of Brexiters to understand this grows out of their narrative of how the UK lost sovereignty from EU membership whereas, in fact, the EU was an arena in which the UK (in particular, one might argue) could exercise and magnify its sovereignty. At all events, the coming negotiations will show that each country within the EU-27 will have some degree of influence.
Spain will be especially relevant not just because of Gibraltar but also because of the large numbers of British residents there and because of their stance towards Scottish independence, something, not coincidental to the Gibraltar row one assumes, revised just today. Ireland, for obvious reasons, will also be highly influential, but each member will to some extent have the opportunity to pursue its own agenda within the negotiations. All of the compromises and trade-offs that Brexiters bemoan about EU membership will not cease, but now the UK will face them alone across the negotiating table rather than as a powerful member, with powerful allies, within the EU. In a similar way, having for years mocked the EU Parliament as a ‘rubber stamp’, Brexiters now face the prospect that any exit deal will be subject to the approval of that body which is drafting its own red lines on what is acceptable.
We are going to have years, now, of Brexiter outrage at having to deal with the inevitable consequences of their policy, as if these were not both predictable and, in fact, predicted. Like a toddler’s tantrum, “it’s not fair” will be the repeated refrain when the world proves not to be amenable to their wishes. And this tantrum will not just be about the EU. Brexiters are excited by the possibility of regaining ‘our seat on the WTO’ but whether or not Brexit means ‘trading on WTO terms’ that is going to bring many more encounters with a reality that does not fit with Brexiter fantasies. An early indication of that came last week with a question from Indonesia to the WTO Agriculture Committee about post-Brexit trade issues. The US, Russia, China and Argentina have all “registered an interest” in this matter, which has potentially far-reaching implications for British agriculture. That may seem an arcane matter, but it shows how post-Brexit Britain will have to navigate a whole new world of complexities which will be as much, or more, political than economic. In this sense, too, the furore over Gibraltar is an instructive pointer to what the future holds.
Update (4 April 2017): A comment below made me ask myself what the implications for Brexit are for the Channel Islands, something I don't recall having seen discussed. A quick search found this recent report: http://www.itv.com/news/channel/2017-03-23/brexit-to-have-significant-impact-on-channel-islands/