Opinion

Brexit: UK ignoring EU nations’ concerns

Vidya Ram | Updated on November 23, 2018 Published on November 23, 2018
British Prime Minister Theresa May (file pic)

British Prime Minister Theresa May (file pic)

Britain’s attention is on creating a great trading nation and extricating itself from the union

This week as Prime Minister Theresa May appeared to recover somewhat from last week’s political turmoil — that saw several ministerial resignations and letters of no-confidence submitted against her — another potential stumbling block appeared. The 6.7-kilometre-square rock of Gibraltar.

The area was ceded to Britain in 1713, though Spain maintains a claim to the territory. Talks on the future of the rock have been ongoing and at points were fraught with some of the difficulties and political sensitivities that have characterised the Brexit process.

Rock of Gibraltar

While in past referenda Gibraltarians have rejected the option of either entering Spanish sovereignty (in 1967), or shared sovereignty (2002), during the Brexit referendum 95.9 per cent voted to remain in the EU.

While Gibraltar is outside the customs union that has proved at the heart of the complexities of much of Britain’s negotiations with the rest of the EU, the rock is heavily dependent on a Spanish workforce, thousands of whom cross to the territory each day.

Tensions ratcheted up early last year amid suggestions in the UK press that Spain would seek to use the Brexit negotiations — and the veto power it would hold over any UK-EU trade deal — to extract concessions on Gibraltar, including on the rock’s international airport. Britain’s then foreign secretary Boris Johnson reacted furiously, pledging “implacable and rock-like support.” One former Conservative Leader went even further: Michael Howard claimed Britain would be prepared to go to war to defend the rock — a comment that Downing Street very visibly refused to condemn or refute. However, over the past year, much progress appeared to have been made as Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said in remarks widely reported in the British press that the issue of Gibraltar’s status would “no longer be a problem” for the withdrawal process, though separate bilateral talks on specific issues such as the movement of workers and taxation would continue.

However, this week it emerged that Spain is considering voting against the withdrawal agreement at a summit set to take place this weekend unless the withdrawal agreement specified that talks on Gibraltar were separate bilateral negotiations between Britain and Spain that did not form part of the wider “future relationship” talks between the UK and the EU. The government has shown little sign of backing down. “We are absolutely steadfast,” May told the House of Commons on Wednesday, insisting that ensuring Gibraltar was part of the exit negotiations was an absolute commitment.

The same attitude has prevailed when it comes to the issue of Northern Ireland, and the very real concerns of Northern Ireland (55 per cent of whose residents voted to remain) and the Republic of Ireland. Thanks to the DUP, the government’s ally since the 2017 general election, the debate has centred on the need to maintain unity and regulatory conformity across the UK — treating Ireland’s demands as almost an inconvenience, rather than to the very crucial role it would play in the maintenance of the peace process on the island. Another source of uncertainty has also come from France, which is eager for the agreement to include fishing rights for EU fishing boats in UK waters similar to those that already exist — an initiative believed to command the support of other EU nations.

Fractious infighting

The developments highlight how in the fractious infighting within the UK political circles, the concerns of EU countries have been by-and-large sidestepped in the public discourse. Attention has focussed on Britain’s aim of creating a great trading nation and extricating itself from the union — as well as the costs to the UK economy.

While Britain will unsurprisingly bear the brunt of the economic impact of Brexit, studies including one published last year on the “continental divide” highlighted how specific regions of EU nations would be significantly impacted — some parts of the Republic of Ireland could be hit as badly as London, while some regions of southern Germany face around a third the level of exposure as UK regions.

The lack of appreciation of these sensitivities in the UK has often heightened tensions. This week Prime Minister Theresa May faced a lambasting on social media following a speech to business leaders in which suggested that EU citizens had been able to “jump the queue ahead of engineers from Sydney or software developers from Delhi,” which would no longer apply after Brexit as part of plans to introduce a skills-based immigration system that was blind to where the person came from. As many pointed out, EU citizens had simply been exercising a right that had been shared by UK citizens elsewhere in Europe, who had been able to live and work freely as they chose.

Of course, EU nations have also chosen to take advantage of Britain’s political turmoil — seeking to lure investment from the rest of the world. Alongside private sector jobs, two EU agencies — the European Medicines Agency and the European Banking Authority and their hundreds of employees — are set to be relocated to Amsterdam and Paris, respectively.

Nevertheless, a willingness by the UK to recognise the concerns of individual EU states and seek to ameliorate them rather than treat them as part of a zero-sum game that is there to be won or lost would likely result in greater engagement and more beneficial terms for them too.

As the controversy over the terms of the draft withdrawal agreement and shorter political declaration on future relations persists, the deal Britain has managed to negotiate appears to be a result that pleases few: its Northern Ireland solution has alienated it from the DUP, while the outline of customs arrangements for the future suggest something far removed from the frictionless trade the government had said it wanted.

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Published on November 23, 2018
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