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Letter from the Brexit Front Lines     Print Email
By Michael White, London

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Conscientious Americans, eager to be distracted from President Trump’s latest diplomatic salvo, his threat to “solve North Korea” unilaterally if China doesn’t sort it out, may take comfort from a Ruritanian version of sabre rattling diplomacy which vied for European headlines as the week began. Another Falklands war!  Another Spanish Armada!  Like much else, the Gibraltar question would be funny if it wasn’t serious.

Yes, the starting point was the British government’s formal letter - delivered by hand on behalf of prime minister, Theresa May, to Donald Tusk, Polish president of the EU’s council of ministers in Brussels on March 29 -  triggering what is known as the Article 50. That is the clause of the 2009 Treaty of Lisbon that allows a state to negotiate withdrawal from the Union, as UK voters narrowly decided (by 52% to 48%) to do in the Brexit referendum last June.

May’s letter and accompanying question and answer session with MPs at Westminster were widely seen as conciliatory in tone, hopeful of a close and constructive relationship with the other 27 EU state after the two year process of disengagement stipulated in A50. She ticked most of the boxes of mutual concern and acknowledged how difficult many detailed issues will be to resolve – including outstanding debts to EU budgets, Northern Ireland’s sensitive border with the Republic (soon to be an EU frontier), the vital compromises needed between trade access and the continuing rights of EU citizens to live and work in the UK.

The message intended is clearly one of growing acceptance that it will not be “perfectly OK” ( as foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, flippantly put it) for Britain to keep saying “ no deal is better than a bad deal” and rely on WTO terms to trade. Senior ministers, May, her chancellor of the exchequer, Philip Hammond, and Brexit minister, David Davis, now confirmed as the heavyweight negotiator in the pro-Brexit squad, all want to calm down feelings and expectations. The Labour opposition, scrambling belatedly towards policy coherence, wants to hold May to sensible compromises.

But will the raucous tabloid press, mostly owned by pro-Brexit foreigners like Rupert Murdoch and oligarchs, resident offshore for tax purposes, let them? Will populists like Nigel Farage, ex-leader of the UK Independence party and Trump groupie - now advising Californian separatists - and the cluster of “dark money” tech savvy advocates of neo-nationalism, from Moscow to Trump Towers, with whom he likes to consort? Trump bagman, Steve Bannon, hedge fund billionaire, Robert Mercer, as well as Russian online exotics, are starting to get attention from hard-pressed European election regulators.

The EU’s initial response to May’s letter 48 hours later was also firm but conciliatory. Wise heads on both sides know how much damage they can do to each other if assertive, nationalistic politics – the kind now in fashion from Beijing to Washington via Moscow and New Delhi  - prevail over rational self-interest. You’ll have to agree terms for settling your debts ( pensions and other long-term commitments) before any trade deal talks, Mr Tusk explained. Our priority is to keep the EU 27 united, so don’t try and divide us, he added. Both sides privately accuse the other of wishful thinking, but also agreed it will take more than two years to finalise the divorce. Ten, if they are lucky.

So far so reasonable. Alas, that wasn’t good enough for May’s own Conservative party’s Tea Party faction, for their allies in the Fleet St national newspaper industry or for their excitable counterparts across the English Channel – La Manche to the French. Settling debts? What debts!  Why is free movement of EU citizens to Britain not being stopped now rather than in 2019? May’s bland reference to the need to maintain important cooperation over defence and security, not least shared intelligence and anti-terrorism policing (where the UK is Europe’s lead state), also provided scope for outrage. It was taken in some quarters as a hint of blackmail: give us a deal or we will cut you out of GCHQ and the  intercepted “five eyes” traffic shared between the US, Canada, the UK, New Zealand and Canada.

Soothing noises were duly proffered all round, but not before another sliver of good will had collapsed into the sea like one of those regular falls of fragile chalk cliff on both sides of the Dover Strait. For an EU confronting pressing problems, economic torpor in the Eurozone, bank and immigration worries, populist revolts, Brexit is an unwelcome distraction. Tusk, Germany’s Angela Merkel and – even more so – the French political elite , focussed on their own election, regard it as more Britain’s self-inflicted problem to solve than theirs. Ex-premier Tusk is regarded as a traitor by his own nationalist government in Warsaw. It tried to get his reappointment blocked.

The Brussels leaders are right to say, however delicately, they hold most of the negotiating aces, May’s commitment to a  “global Britain” is at misty-eyed variance with the brutal facts of contemporary trade patterns and the “Britain’s first” instincts of many Brexit voters, England’s equivalent of  Trump’s “forgotten man.”  Nostalgia for Commonwealth trade with Canada, India or Australia is mostly just that. But Brussels and Berlin are complacent not to admit the risks of what Henry Kissinger’s Cold War theories called mutually assured destruction if events get out of hand. They could.

Thus few immediately noticed that May’s text (as distinct from London’s negotiating white paper) made no mention of Gibraltar. The jagged two square miles of colonial outcrop at the southern tip of Spain (pop. 30,000) has allowed the Royal Navy to control western access to the Med’ since 1704 when it captured the Rock. That was 993 years after an invading Arab general renamed it Tariq’s Mountain – Jabal Tariq – after himself in 711 CE. Catholic Spain took it back only in 1462, so the Brits have held it longer.

Though Spain refuses to return Ceuta (7 sq miles) and other enclaves of its own on Morocco’s coast, Gib’s retention by the post imperial British remains a very sore point, periodically “blockaded” for decade. So Spanish diplomats ensured that Tusk’s reply to prime minister May’s letter specified that no agreement on post-Brexit UK/EU trade should include Gibraltar without express consent of Madrid.

In other words, a “veto”. Outrageous? No. Spain already has a veto on Brexit and a real economic grievance over Gib’s tax haven status and smuggling habits. EU officials were simply trying to park this emotive issue. Madrid tried to play down the uproar that followed in Fleet St, but not before Lord Michael Howard, a Thatcher cabinet veteran and party leader (2003-05), had gone on Sunday sofa TV to wave Britain’s rusty sabre. He reminded Spain that, if necessary, May would do what Thatcher did when Spanish-speaking Argentina’s junta invaded the Falkland/Malvinas Islands in 1982. With varying degrees of bellicosity other UK ministers followed his lead.

No, Britain and Spain are not going to fight over Gibraltar. Both countries navies are pitiful relics of their imperial heyday. Britain’s military competence is much diminished in Washington’s eyes, even since the Falklands. As for Spain, it enjoys a favourable trade balance with the UK and provides 40% of Gib’s work force. Some 400,000 Brits have retired to southern Spain – our equivalent of snowbirds to Florida – whose economic woes make them and millions of summertime tourists too valuable to lose. Fleet St preferred to reach for its jingoistic playbook, dragging more cautious TV news behind it.  In the present public mood, no network wants to be accused of being an unpatriotic “enemy of the people.”

So the incident highlights the risks involved in Britain’s disengagement from 44 years of  EU partnership. Whitehall struggles to find or train trade teams whose expertise has been outsourced to Brussels since 1973. Its diplomatic arm, much reduced as Mr Trump plans to reduce the State Department, was blindsided by Spain’s Gib tactic, over which airy assurances as to its future (the pro-British faction rejected a “shared sovereignty’ plan by 98.97% in 2002) were given during last year’s UK referendum. The awkward fact is that the EU was required to be neutral in a dispute between two member states: with Britain out, it must now tilt towards Spain’s position. More goodwill was expended to calm things down.

Yet the Spanish government did make one move which was clearly hostile to London’s interests without enraging the political right. Why? Because Gibraltarians want to stay British, but not all Scots do. After years of allowing everything to think it would block an application from an independent Scotland to re-join the EU, a precedent that was deemed to encourage Catalan and Basque separatists, Madrid stated clearly that it would regret a UK break-up. But it would not block an application arising from a lawful separation, notwithstanding its own repeated refusal to acknowledged independence referendums organised without Madrid’s consent in Catalonia.

Like much else since the Brexit vote that change too undermines assurances given before David Cameron’s government lost the June 23 Brexit ballot and does so at a sensitive time too. May’s Article 50 trigger (unhappily it came a week after Muslim convert, Khalid Masood, killed four people at Westminster itself and was shot dead) triggered the predicted response from Nicola Sturgeon, first minister of Scotland under the “devolved” power-sharing agreement of 1999 for Britain’s three Celtic nations: Welsh, Scots and Northern Irish.

She formally asked London for permission (for obvious reasons, that power was not devolved) to stage a second Indy referendum because Brexit without membership of the EU’s single market and customs union (May’s declared position) will overturn Scotland’s stated pro-EU ( by a 62% majority) position in the Brexit ballot. If you are bound by your Brexit majority, why can’t I stand by mine, Sturgeon argues. May counters that Scots voters should be allowed to see the deal she gets rather than vote blind beforehand. Both steer clear of a purely coincidental local crisis in Belfast which threatens stable Protestant-Catholic power-sharing there.  Dublin too has no wish for further grief on its border.

It’s complicated, of course. Scots have not shifted much from their 55% to 45% rejection of independence in 2014 and one third of SNP voters backed Brexit. As with the wider UK economy, both good things and bad are happening post-Brexit, to encourage both sides. But oil prices on which Scotland’s separatists placed so much optimism, remain weak and the fiscal prospects hard to square. London’s ineptitude over Gib and Madrid’s handy clarification of its position gave Sturgeon a boost , even as she grapples with voters grievances over public services at home.

For both leaders it is a head vs heart gamble. Both must seek to placate both the pragmatic centre voters and their more ideologically-committed activists. As he stumbles over health care and tax reform, President Trump is starting to recognise this dilemma. It is one which chancellor Merkel, three times chancellor of Germany, knows only too well as she squares up to the mainstream challenge of Martin Schultz, bearded and shirt-fused standard-bearer of the social democrats (SPD), and to populist challenges from left and right.

Before Merkel does so in September, French voters must decide this month who will be in the second round play-off against the far-right National Front’s Marine Le Pen and –in May – which will become president.  Centrist insurgent, Emmanuel Macron (39), a brilliant technocrat but almost as untested in government as candidate Trump, is the tipsters’ current champion after the centre-right’s Francois Fillon mishandled charges of nepotistic abuse of state funds: a classic insider’s error. But Macron too could stumble. Le Pen, chummy with Vladimir Putin and backed by Russian loans (is this still surprising?), might easily bring the EU’s roof down.  Disgruntled stay-at-home voters could elect her by default. Last month’s mainstream election win in the Netherlands should not disguise the powerful rightwards tug of  Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party.

A Len Pen presidency would be a Pyrrhic victory for Britain’s Brexiteers, few of whom actively wish to see the EU break up, aware that such a seismic disruption would be hard for them to avoid. But, as in other fragile global flashpoints – Ukraine, North Korea, Syria or the South China Sea – the pace of unpredictable events seems to be quickening.

President Recep Tayyip  Erdogan, busy trying to provoke Merkel over the German ban on campaign visits to promote his constitutional referendum in Turkey, could decide to end cooperation over the flow of Syrian refugees. The Greek economic crisis is due for another eruption. Italy is a basket case and Spain is shadow-boxing with Britain’s over Gib. Thank goodness for the stabilising presence of the United States just over the horizon. Ah, no, perhaps not….

Michael White is a former Washington correspondent and political editor of the Guardian in London.