Brian Monteith: Spain has taught UK lesson over Gibraltar Brexit panic

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The Spanish Prime Min­ister, Pedro Sánchez, has done the UK a service. By causing a brief but fevered panic over the issue of Gibraltar he has deftly illustrated what lies ahead if Westminster chooses to pass the Cabinet’s Withdrawal Agreement.

That he threatened to veto the draft proposal was not the point; he could not have done so as the council could have passed the proposal by a qualified majority of 20 votes out of 27. The real lesson that comes from the episode is the Spanish are ready to use their veto when it does matter, as indeed will the French and probably some of the other 27 EU member states, too.

Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez  (Photo by EMMANUEL DUNAND / AFP)EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images

Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez (Photo by EMMANUEL DUNAND / AFP)EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images

It needs to be understood that the Withdrawal Agreement is not the end game, but merely lays out the parameters of how we leave. Any final deal will need the unanimous approval of the 27 EU members – and at that point Spain shall have a veto – and will use it.

The Withdrawal Agreement merely postpones the inevitable capitulation until mid-to-late 2020 – when the UK faces further humiliation at accepting terms we would not countenance were we applying for new membership from scratch.

Over that next two years the UK-EU trade deal and other socio-economic relationships should be agreed quite easily – after all, we already have the same rules and will continue to do so through the implementation period. Only it will be a long drawn out affair and although tantalisingly close it will be unfinished. For we will endure all the same threats and scares of the last two years – from EU negotiators and individual countries, as well as from the usual suspects of fifth columnists on our own side actively working to fix us a bad deal – and then will come the denouement.

Spain, France and others fully intend to maintain their current access to our fisheries and will be quite prepared to threaten a veto on the real deal if we do not concede what they want. And they have leverage. Spanish politicians will beat their chests about Gibraltar, making intemperate statements to heighten passions but privately say they will back down in return for fisheries access. The French are already laying the legal groundwork to undermine the value of equivalence in financial services so that they can build the capital market in Paris, giving them a very strong bargaining counter from which to maintain their access to our waters. If we concede on fisheries then they will concede on equivalence.

Only at the weekend President Macron warned that if the EU did not get its way on fisheries policy – in effect creating a “Son-of-CFP” – then France would be quite prepared to hold out so the UK is pushed into the protocol called the Irish Backstop and is thus trapped inside the EU’s Single Market without any say over its directives and laws – and inside the Customs Union with no voice over the tariffs and trade deals it agrees to. If you were against the US-EU Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) that the UK’s Brexit vote helped collapse, then be aware the EU could impose such a trade agreement upon us without the UK having the sort of veto that even the Walloon Parliament in Belgium has.

The UK would have no legal ability to escape this protocol. At least as a member of the EU Article 50 gives member states the right to leave.

So, what’s it to be? Will Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement pass? The current estimate of Conservative MPs prepared to vote against what amounts to a legally binding international treaty is 90. Even if only two-thirds of that number do actually rebel, 60 is a very big revolt for a minority government that in normal times relies upon the DUP’s ten MPs – but who on this occasion are also set to vote it down. Will the Labour Party save Theresa May?

Even half the estimate would mean 45 MPs rebelling – a number greater than expected a month ago. Then there are the 13 Scottish Conservatives, of whom only Ross Thomson has said he will definitely vote against the proposal. Could more of them in the end calculate the Prime Minister’s verbal IOU is not worth the paper it is written on?

Last week the EU-UK Political Declaration made it quite explicit in paragraph 75 that “Within the context of the overall economic partnership the Parties should establish a new fisheries agreement on, inter alia, access to waters and quota shares.” Spain and France will take that to mean that even if the negotiations are held separately they will not be signed off until both are agreed and the Son–of-CFP is conceived and delivered. To refuse to meet their demands will mean we go into the protocol.

It does not matter what assurances the Prime Minister gives about the UK becoming a sovereign coastal nation with its own rights to decide who fishes in our waters. All that it means is her government can be blackmailed into deciding that the Spanish, French, Dutch and others will be able to carry on fishing just as they are now.

What then will Tory MP David Duguid say to his constituents in Banff and Buchan? Likewise, what then will Douglas Ross say to his voters in Moray? The Prime Minister is playing with words. In a few years she will be in the Lords, but they and their Tory colleagues will no longer be sitting on the green benches of the Commons, for the electorate will have seen to it they are one-term MPs wishing they had heeded the warnings given to them.

Anyone, even a disinterested tourist from Mars, can see what’s coming down the tracks – more bargaining, more compromises and more last minute panics with further capitulations. Horse-trading is what the EU is all about. Just when you think you have squared off a deal after making significant compromises with the bureaucracy of Brussels, so individual countries introduce their leverage to extract more.

The Withdrawal Agreement being offered is now worse than being a full member of the EU. Only a managed No Deal under WTO rules will provide the UK with the legal sovereignty to do as it wishes without succumbing to blackmail; managing our own fisheries, protecting Gibraltar and anything else we care dearly about. The agreement is worse than No Deal – and we had better get used to that fact.