When the United Kingdom triggered Article 50 last Wednesday, I was expecting some initial turmoil. What I was not expecting the prospect of war with another NATO member. On Friday the Guardian reported the EU have adopted a stance ‘effectively backing Spain’ in the ongoing dispute over the Rock’s sovereignty. In brief, the EU has declared that Spain will be able to exclude Gibraltar from any UK-EU trade agreement, effectively consigning the territory to economic crisis unless it decides to assimilate into Spain. In response, former Tory leader Michael Howard today announced that Theresa May would show the same ‘resolve’ in defending the sovereignty of Gibraltar as Thatcher did with the Falkland Islands.
It seems a shame that such an historic and crucial moment in Europe’s recent history should begin with a round of politicians arguing who can pull out the biggest sabre and shake it the hardest, but here we are. To start with, I find Michael Howard’s bellicose rhetoric irresponsible and counterproductive. I’m sure a good time was had by all in the Peninsular War, but I have no desire we repeat it. It should be noted that so far the only literature produced in the negotiations is Theresa May’s Article 50 letter and a 9-page draft document sent out to EU member states by Donald Tusk, the end of which contains the reference to Gibraltar’s status. Threats of violence should always be the final recourse in any situation, and it is irresponsible of Lord Howard to ramp up the rhetoric when negotiations on the future of post-Brexit UK haven’t even started. It would be tragic if Anglo-Spanish relations were ever to break down into such a state where war was a serious possibiltiy, and no representative on either side should take actions that could lead to such an eventuality.
However, amongst all the discussion of Howard’s tub-thumping, I can’t help but feel we’re overlooking what is essentially a very bad faith move by the European Union. Gibraltar may well be a historical and geographical anomaly, but it is has been a British territory for over 300 years. What’s more, Gibraltarians have rejected any changes to their sovereignty in two referendums – the first time by 99%, the second by 98%. For the EU to blatantly disregard the wishes of the territory’s residents, who, lest we forget, voted 96% in favour of Remain, and instead use them as a bargaining chip is shoddy by any standard. As a side note, I would say I am surprised to see certain left-wingers who are usually very keen on self-determination suddenly lose interest when the territory at stake is British, except for the fact that I’m not in the slightest bit.
The announcement from the EU may seem like a fit of pique, but it is, in fact, rather good politics. The reaction given by Lord Howard was expected and desired by EU officials as it provides them with a win-win situation. Remainers, and some soft Brexiteers, in the UK are horrified by such rhetoric, and believe it shows that the Leave vote was orchestrated by reckless oddballs with a penchant for Imperialism, and intensify their calls for a second referendum. European voters, on the other hand, will see Britain as sabre-rattling and hostile, and be more receptive to us being offered a bad deal.
It has long seemed to me that the optimal result the EU are seeking is a deal for the UK which is as bad as possible without being too harmful to UK interests. Again, such an outcome is a win-win situation for the European Union. Ideally, the deal is so clearly bad one of the major parties runs on a manifesto of either a referendum on rejecting the deal/rejoining the EU or simply doing so outright, and the British public will go for it. If this doesn’t happen, then the hope is the British economy goes à l’eau and serves as warning for any other member state thinking of leaving.
Maybe the EU’s stance on Gibraltar is good realpolitik and I’m being squeamish, but to move away from the conciliatory tone from both sides of last Wednesday so soon is disappointing. Similarly, it is sad to see such overblown rhetoric from some in the UK, particularly from senior politicians who should know better, and both sides embarking on this cycle runs the risk of stoking two years of division and insecurity. However, what is clear is to attempt to fight fire with even more fire is damaging to Britain’s national interest, and our representatives, and indeed our media, should show a little more restraint and responsibility if we are to come out of this well.