domingo, 2 de abril de 2017

Diplomacy rocks / Brexit talks turn ugly over Gibraltar

Diplomacy rocks
                By Jim Brunsden
April 3, 2017
Financial Times / Brussels Briefing

We cannot know for certain what Alfonso Dastis, Spain’s foreign minister, thought to himself on Sunday when he switched on the television and saw that Michael Howard, a former British minister, was talking about war to protect Gibraltar, but he might well have permitted himself a smile.

The past few days have been a diplomatic masterclass from Madrid.

When it comes to the Gibraltar row, Spain secured a mention of the territory in the EU’s draft Brexit negotiating guidelines that has little legal relevance but that amounts to a political coup: it means other capitals are being publicly respectful of Madrid’s sensitivities when it comes to the British overseas territory.

In contrast to José Manuel García-Margallo, his combative predecessor as Spain’s foreign minister, Mr Dastis, has shown a subtle touch that is good at winning friends without requiring any ceding of precious diplomatic ground.

That was fully on display last week, when he signalled a softening of Madrid’s reservations about an independent Scotland joining the EU.

Speaking to El País, Mr Dastis, a former Spanish ambassador to the EU, said that “at first glance” he “did not foresee” any need to block a Scottish application.

Pro-Union politicians in London, from Theresa May downwards, have cited inevitable Spanish resistance as a crucial stumbling block for an independent Scotland trying to join the EU. The argument wasn’t without merit: Madrid was vocally against Scottish secession during the 2014 independence referendum - a position linked to its concerns about any precedent that could embolden separatists in Catalonia.

In his comments to El País, Mr Dastis sounded reasonable without really giving anything away: Scotland could apply, but there’s no guarantee what would come of the accession talks. Also, the holy grail for Scottish nationalists has always been fast-tracked EU membership, not the meagre right to start the process from square one.

Similarly, in the Gibraltar row, Madrid is the capital that has come out looking reasonable; the bellicose language has been emanating from London.

Madrid can bask in a diplomatic success, without having demanded, or secured, any change in the situation on the ground. In fact, the main people talking about a threat to British sovereignty are British and Gibraltarian politicians and newspapers.

Mr Dastis, in his El País interview, could content himself with acknowledging a new political reality:

“We have talked with our partners and the [EU] institutions in recent weeks and we have made the Spanish position clear,” he said.

“When the United Kingdom leaves the EU, then the EU’s partner is Spain, and that when it comes to Gibraltar the EU is obliged, as a result, to take the side of Spain.”

Email: Twitter: @jimbrunsden

Brexit in the Med

Rock bottom Those looking for evidence that Gibraltar occupies a special space in the British psyche need look no further than the, in some quarters utterly bonkers, reactions to the reference to Gibraltar included in the EU’s draft Brexit negotiating guidelines.

The offending sentence simply says that once Britain has left the EU, no deal between the EU and the UK “may apply to the territory of Gibraltar without the agreement between the Kingdom of Spain and the United Kingdom”.

The statement has little, if any, legal meaning (see our explainer here) but this hasn’t prevented British politicians reaching for a sabre to rattle:

The tensions were laid bare when Michael Howard, former Tory leader, recalled how Margaret Thatcher sent troops to the Falklands in 1982 “to defend the freedom of another small group of British people against another Spanish-speaking country”.

Lord Howard yesterday told Sky News he was “absolutely certain” Mrs May would “show the same resolve in standing by the people of Gibraltar”. Defence secretary Michael Fallon said Britain would go “all the way” to defend its 300-year-old territory.

Gunboat diplomacy While war over a draft EU document prepared by a centrist politician from Poland is not immediately on the cards, that didn’t stop the Telegraph getting into the spirit of things:

Britain's Royal Navy is substantially weaker than it was during the Falklands War but could still "cripple" Spain, military experts have said.

Rear-Adml Chris Parry, a former director of operational capability at the Ministry of Defence,  has called on the Government to "appropriately" invest in Britain's military capacity if it wants to "talk big" over Gibraltar.

Brexit talks turn ugly over Gibraltar


Britain has said Spain can have no new powers over Gibraltar, as Brexit prompts hard talk on sovereignty, security, and borders.
“We will never enter into arrangements under which the people of Gibraltar would pass under the sovereignty of another state against their freely and democratically expressed wishes”, the British prime minister’s office said in a statement on Sunday (2 April).

The British defence minister, foreign minister, and the chief minister of Gibraltar issued similar comments in a debate prompted by the start of Brexit talks last week.
“Gibraltar is going to be protected all the way,” Michael Fallon, the defence chief, told the BBC on Sunday.

Boris Johnson, the foreign minister, said on Facebook: “The UK remains implacable and rock-like in our support for Gibraltar.”

Fabian Picardo, the Gibraltar chief, told the BBC that life under Spain would be “absolutely ­awful”. He told the Financial Times newspaper that the UK should stand up to EU “bullies” and “blackmail”.

The Gibraltar issue came up after the EU published its draft guidelines for Brexit talks last Friday.

The draft said “no agreement” on a future EU-UK trade deal “may apply to the territory of Gibraltar without the agreement between the Kingdom of Spain and the United Kingdom”.

The text indicates that Spain would have a veto over Gibraltar’s economic future.

It might amount to little more than trying to force the British outpost to change its super-low corporate tax rate.

Hard talk
But the rock, which Britain seized from Spain in 1704, has a history of provoking tensions over status and territorial zones.

Michael Howard, a former leader of the ruling Conservative Party in the UK, told the Sky News broadcaster on Sunday that Britain would go to war with Spain over Gibraltar the same way it did with Argentina over the Falkland Islands in 1983.

“Thirty-five years ago this week, another woman prime minister sent a taskforce halfway across the world to defend the freedom of another small group of British people against another Spanish-speaking country, and I’m absolutely certain that our current prime minister will show the same resolve in standing by the people of Gibraltar,” he said.

“I can see no harm in reminding them [the EU] what kind of people we are,” he said.

British anti-EU tabloids, such as The Sun and The Express, cited a former British military commander in saying the UK could crush the Spanish navy.

The Brexit talks will also have to deal with thorny questions on Scotland, Ireland, and security cooperation as well as trade and freedom of movement for EU workers.

Scotland has said it wants to hold a second referendum on independence in order to remain in the EU.

Irish politicians have said there should be a referendum on Irish unification with Northern Ireland to prevent the reimposition of a hard border after Brexit.

The UK, last week, also indicated it might hold back on security cooperation with the EU if the trade talks go badly.

Scottish question
The Scottish question risks further enflaming tensions with Spain after Madrid said at the weekend that it would not stand in the way of an independent Scotland joining the EU.

Alfonso Dastis, the Spanish foreign minister, told the El Pais newspaper on Saturday that he did “not foresee that we would block” Scottish membership.

Spain had previously indicated it would block Scotland in order not to create a precedent for separatists in the Spanish region of Catalonia, but Dastis said the two cases were “not comparable” on constitutional grounds.

Fallon, the British defence chief, indicated on Sunday that the UK wanted to maintain security cooperation with Europe despite the nasty rhetoric.

“What we’re now looking for is a deep and special partnership which covers both economic and security cooperation,” he told the BBC.

“We need to make sure that cooperation continues because Europe faces threats not only from Russian aggression but, as we’ve seen in recent weeks, from terrorism as well,” he said, referring to last month's terrorist attack in London.

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