Of course Theresa May caved in to demands over Gibraltar – Britain can’t resist the allure of marginal power

As much as we try to deny it, the UK is no longer the vast, powerful rich imperial and naval power it once was – after Brexit, all the important economic decisions will be increasingly driven from Brussels

Sunday 25 November 2018 16:58
Theresa May insists UK position on Gibraltar hasn't changed amid Brexit negotiations

There goes Gibraltar, then. Like a last-minute-of-extra-time winning goal in an England-Spain World Cup final, the Spanish premier/striker Pedro Sanchez scored with a seemingly hopeless shot lobbed into the corner of the net. The exhausted other side just lacked the energy to stop it. Game over.

Like Northern Ireland, the fate of Gibraltar – constitutional, economic and political – is now subject to a foreign power with the force of the EU behind it. Despite her warm, defiant, patriotic words about always standing by Gibraltar, and the meaningless talk about the “UK family”, the hard legal truth is that the future UK-EU trade deal need not include Gibraltar at all. It may be hung out to dry if it proves too inconvenient to British interests, just like Northern Ireland was with the backstop. And countless others back through history: Perfidious Albion and all that.

Pedro Sanchez says Spanish position on Brexit agreement has been reinforced

Theresa May says she will be negotiating for Gib, which is true: but if she insists on terms for Gib as part of the new deal that Spain dislikes, then the whole UK future relationship with the EU will not be settled. The Kingdom of Spain has got its de facto veto, just as Ireland has won over Northern Ireland.

The putative EU 27 agreed statement says as much: “After the United Kingdom leaves the union, Gibraltar will not be included in the territorial scope of the agreements to be concluded between the union and the United Kingdom.”

Sanchez says Spain will insist on co-sovereignty and no one should doubt what he calls the “capital” importance of the Rock to the Kingdom of Spain.

It is more visceral even than the border issue in Ireland, because at least Dublin has renounced the territorial claim to the six counties of the North without popular consent. Spain wants Gibraltar no matter what the Gibraltarians want.

We have seen this past week how Spain, skilfully, will leverage its position, and how nationalism can be such a powerful force there (pace Catalonia). Do not forget that between 1969 and 1985 the border between Spain and Gibraltar was actually closed to all traffic and for most of the time even for visitors on foot – Europe’s other little iron curtain.

The border was only opened because Spain wanted to join the EU. The UK, already inside since 1973, could use the heft of the EU to insist that the Spanish dropped their blockade of Gibraltar as the price of accession, and so they did. It was an example of the EU’s collective power and the leverage potential of a system of shared sovereignties.

Oh the irony!

Spain will also pursue its case to “decolonise” Gibraltar through the United Nations but will now have France, a permanent member of the Security Council, plus 25 more member states lending diplomatic support. It will pressure the UK and Gibraltar governments through the EU trade talks – which haven’t even started in earnest. And watch too how the Spanish use their new weight in the EU to push the Argentine case on the Falklands, for reasons of boosting Spanish influence across Latin America. It will be a global British diplomatic disaster.

The UK is no longer the vast, powerful rich imperial and naval power it once was: it will not be able to resist the pressures to share sovereignty in Gibraltar. There are too many jobs nearer home in London, Leeds and Leith riding on an EU trade deal. The same goes for Northern Ireland.

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They are too small: they will prove expendable, sooner or later. Indeed their own populations may start to wonder if a new settlement outside the UK might be more advantageous. After all, both Northern Ireland and Gibraltar voted to stay in the EU. Fabian Picardo and Arlene Foster should take note as they play the game with Whitehall and Westminster, and mind their backs.

Soon, then, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar will pass into the hands of Brussels as its first colonies. The Europhobes always spoke of the EU as a new Belgian Empire: well, now look what you’ve done.

Whatever flags happen to be fluttering over the rooftops, and even if the Queen’s head is on the postage stamps, all the important economic decisions will be increasingly driven from Brussels.

Of course this could all be prevented – or we could at least enjoy some sort of national consent – if we decided to have a second referendum, a Final Say, on this disastrous deal. A national debate now we know the facts. It should happen, and we could hold it in the spring.

It is needed, for I very much doubt that this is the Brexit many of us voted for. It really will be like the Suez affair of 1956, which signalled the end of the British pretension to be a global power, but much, much worse, for this signals that the UK is no longer a regional power.

British audiences are told home truths by the foreign ministers of Estonia and Malta. The UK can be pushed around by nations that it once condescended to or were once its own colonies: No end of a lesson.

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