Sunday 2 April 2017

Lessons from Gibraltar

The response in the UK to the EU Council’s draft negotiation guidelines has been instructive. Most attention has been focussed on the paragraph (22) relating to Gibraltar, to the effect that no UK-EU Brexit agreement will apply there without the agreement of Spain*. This gives Spain a powerful voice in the Brexit negotiations and calls into question the sovereignty of this disputed territory, as well as indicating that the EU is likely to side with Spain in that dispute. Gibraltar, which voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU (and, in a previous referendum, to stay in the UK) is significant not least for being the only part of the UK other than Northern Ireland to have what on Brexit will be a land border with the EU. (Readers of the blog will have been alerted to this facet of Brexit, as I pointed it out in my post in last October; for a detailed briefing on the quite complex issues relating to Gibraltar and Brexit see this report by Joe Carberry and Jonathan Lis).

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.

*Note: there is some complexity in decoding what this means. The Sky News political editor Faisal Islam in a series of tweets today has raised the suggestion that its true meaning relates to any future trade deal under A218, rather than to A50 negotiations. This seems consistent with the wording of paragraph 22 of the Council guidelines which speaks of ‘after the UK leaves’ but is also puzzling (to me) in that A218 deals require unanimity anyway, so Spain would have had a veto already. No doubt more clarity will emerge, but at all events the explicit reference to Gibraltar in the guidelines is significant.

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:


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  2. Excellent piece, Chris. I've been reading through some of your "back issues" and I'm surprised you don't have more of a following. But it obviously takes time to build one.

    The North blogs have a strong following but they have been at it for over a decade. Conceivably, Richard North's efforts, in a series of extraordinarily detailed blogs, exposing the lunacy of the WTO/walkaway option have been instrumental in getting the policy dropped (it looks like; fingers crossed) - though I doubt he will receive acknowledgement, let alone thanks from any official source.

    Anyway, good luck. Writing this good deserves to make a difference.

    PS Yes, do check out Disqus. I had a quick look at their site and it's free to use. From a commentator's POV it's quick to access (less hoops to jump through than Google, which I'm currently using), it allows editing post-post, and the upload of small photos. Definitely the best one I've come across. (And North uses it.)

    1. Thank you, Phil. Yes, it takes time to grow a readership but since I (belatedly)took to Twitter in February the readership has increased sharply. Will look into Discus. Many thanks again, Chris

  3. I started fooling about in Daily Mail comments recently, expecting it to be all rabid leavers. But my sense of it is currently 40 to 50% of those commenting are uneasy about Brexit, especially since the triggering of A50. And this is the Daily Mail we are talking about!

    Then we have Trump of all people saying today the EU is pulling itself together! Makes me wonder if the public mood is about to undergo a dramatic shift.

    I don't think we should give up on the idea yet of calling off Brexit. The EU have confirmed in the draft guidelines that A50 is revocable.

  4. I'm sure Faisal Islam is right that para. 22 is about a future EU-UK FTA. But I think para. 22 would make an important difference.

    First, whether a UK-EU trade deal would require unanimity depends on exactly what is covered. It's conceivable (if unlikely) that a deal could be entirely within EU competence and subject to QMV under articles 207 and 218. But that's a side issue. Let's assume the UK-EU FTA would be a mixed agreement with the EU side negotiating by consensus, which I expect would be the reality.

    In that context, Spain can bang on and on about Gibraltar, and insist that Gibraltar be excluded from the deal. It can cause a lot of internal aggro in the UK about that. But the problem for Spain is that it would have to cause aggro for the other EU countries, for instance by threatening to veto an agreement that suits others well. Spain's intransigence about Gibraltar would be *in the face of the EU*. I think Spain must know this would not be welcome in other capitals.

    If however Spain succeeds in getting Gibraltar hived off into a place where it has a special bilateral veto, then it can appear entirely cooperative to its EU partners in the negotiation of any deal, saving its intransigence only for bilateral discussions with the UK.

    So I think the "extra veto" matters in terms of Spain's diplomatic reputation and political capital.

    I think there may be a real legal problem with it, though. On what basis under the TFEU does the European Council think it can depart from articles 207 and 218 of the treaties, and give Spain an additional bilateral veto over the EU-UK FTA *even in areas of exclusive EU competence*?

    1. Thanks, Carl, for this clear explainer. Makes a lot of sense.

  5. Sorry, I meant "a lot of internal aggro in the EU".

  6. "Gibraltar, which voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU (and, in a previous referendum, to stay in the UK) is significant not least for being the only part of the UK other than Northern Ireland to have what on Brexit will be a land border with the EU."

    Gibraltar isn't a part of the UK though, is it, unlike Northern Ireland? It's a self-governing British Overseas Territory, which isn't the same thing.

    I'm not sure the total ramifications of this, but your article is a very clear explanation of much of what's in progress.

    1. Thanks. Glad you liked it. Sure, Gib and NI are not exactly the same in that respect, but I don't think it affects the points I'm making.

    2. Probably not! The use of EU structures to sort out border disputes and annoyances does seem to be very similar in both cases.