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Charging at Windmills

The Brexiteers’ inflated self-regard has seeped into the military sphere.

Before the referendum, Brexiteers laughed at the idea that the European Union has brought peace to the continent. But four days after the invocation of Brexit, they are already talking about going to war with Spain.

© REUTERS/Jon Nazca

The European Commission’s daily press briefing in Brussels is ordinarily a pretty staid affair. But early this week, things got a little weird.

“In London this weekend there has been talk of war with Spain over Gibraltar – so I would like to ask, which side would the European Commission take?” asked a journalist.

“The European Commission takes the side of dialogue and cooperation, which is our way of doing things,” the Commission spokesperson answered pointedly.

The question came after a weekend in which British newspapers ran headlines talking of a war with Spain over the British territory of Gibraltar, a rock at Spain’s Southern tip which Britain has held since it won the territory in the War of the Spanish Succession in 1713.

On Sunday, former Conservative Party leader Lord Howard said that war with Spain was a possibility if the UK had to use armed conflict to maintain control of the territory. He was infuriated that the 27 other EU countries had mentioned the territory in draft Brexit negotiating guidelines after Prime Minister Theresa May formally triggered the process of leaving the bloc last week.

Howard believes Gibraltar could be lost in the course of the negotiations, and he said May would defend the territory in the same way that the country’s previous female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, defended the Falkland Islands in the war with Argentina in 1982.

“It’s a remarkable coincidence that it was 35 years ago this week that another woman prime minister sent a task force halfway across the world to protect another small group of British people against another Spanish-speaking country,” he said. “Our prime minister will show the same resolve in looking after the interests of Gibraltar as Margaret Thatcher did looking after the interests of the Falkland Islanders.”

Spain’s foreign minister lashed back, saying his government was “surprised by the tone of comments coming out of Britain.” “It seems someone is losing their cool,” he told a conference in Madrid.

Border Problems

Brexit has thrown Gibraltar’s status into question, given that the territory’s relationship with Spain, which disputes Britain’s claim, is governed by an EU treaty. Once the UK leaves the EU, that treaty will no longer be valid. Suddenly, the open-border agreement with Spain on which the territory depends could come to a crashing halt.

Because of this, Gibraltar’s government pleaded with people ahead of last year’s referendum to vote to remain in the EU, and the vast majority of Gibraltarians did so. Gibraltar’s First Minister Fabian Ricardo warned ahead of the vote that a leave vote would result in strict border controls with Spain and that anti-EU voters would have “a lot to answer for” if Britain voted to leave the bloc.

The territory needs Spanish imports, and it needs Spanish workers. 12,000 Spanish people commute into Gibraltar every day to work. Without them, the economy would collapse.

From the EU’s perspective, it was felt that Gibraltar had to be mentioned in the negotiating guidelines because the frontier between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, the other thorny border issue thrown up by Brexit, was mentioned, too. Just like in Gibraltar, a Brexit will require at least a customs barrier and probably an immigration barrier across the island of Ireland, something not seen since the violent “troubles” ended in the late 1990s. The guidelines specified that any new border regime, which would have to allow for “flexibility”, would need to be directly agreed between the UK and Ireland. The same applies to Gibraltar.

“After the UK leaves the Union, no agreement 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 guidelines state.

Given that Spain believes the territory should be returned to it, this opened the possibility that the UK could lose Gibraltar in the course of the negotiations – because any arrangement will need Spanish approval. “Gibraltar is not a bargaining chip in these negotiations”, Picardo said this weekend. “Gibraltar belongs to the Gibraltarians and we want to stay British.”

The reality is that Gibraltar has in fact become a bargaining chip, and this was inevitable. As Picardo warned before the vote, the UK is now in a very weak position vis-a-vis Gibraltar, and the EU27 know that. Refusing to allow a special border exception for Gibraltar will cripple the territory’s economy, but it will cause no harm to Spain. The only way the UK can get a special border regime agreed for them is to give up on something else in the negotiations.

That will be the real test of Britain’s love for the rock – not whether they will go to war to defend it, but whether they will agree to something which could hurt all of Britain automatically in order to keep the territory. Those threatening war now know it is an empty gesture. On Monday Prime Minister May downplayed the war talk.

Imperial Hubris

Still there was a lot of embarrassment among the British in Brussels, and exasperation among other Europeans. But there was little in the way of surprise. The Brexiteer argument has been jingoistic on the subject of economics for so long, it was perhaps only a matter of time until this extended into the military sphere.

Britain is so powerful and mighty that it can surely negotiate on equal footing with a bloc that is seven times its size, Theresa May’s government has insisted. “Threats” by the EU27 to lock the UK out in the cold and leave it with no trading arrangement with the EU were surely bluster, they have said, because the EU needs the UK more than the UK needs the EU.

So when the Brexiteers sought to remind Europeans of their disproportionately large military power (the only EU country that has anything close to the same military power is France), it seemed a logical progression. It isn’t the first time they have done so. May’s Brexit letter triggering Article 50 also sought to remind the EU of the UK’s military power.

“In security terms, a failure to reach agreement would mean our cooperation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened,” she wrote. Her EU partners interpreted this as a threat. Perhaps more importantly, it looks desperate.

While few think that it’s actually going to come to war between the UK and Spain, the comments over the weekend reinforced an impression of a UK government completely detached from reality.