It’s October 2018; this is where appalling diplomatic failings may come back to haunt the UK

October 2, 2018

by Martin Odoni

Remember this?

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Click here for a reminder.

The first action the Conservatives took in the spring of 2017 after activating Article-50 was to threaten war against Spain. This diplomatic masterstroke to precipitate negotiations with neighbouring countries, as the UK prepares to withdraw from the European Union, has rather set the tone subsequently. The Tories have blundered, fumbled, thrashed around, struggled even to come up with a starting framework for creating a new trading agreement, and repeatedly and predictably then tried to blame the repeated logjams on the EU. So much of the eighteen-months-plus since activation of Article-50 has been wasted, and now, alas, we are at the proverbial ‘crunch-point’. Although our official leaving date is 31st March, the effective deadline for completing the broad strokes of negotiations really is this month; the final six months or thereabouts are about fine-tuning the (very, very many) inner details of a new trading arrangement with the EU. We need to get the overall structure of the deal sorted out right now, and I am sure I do not need to tell you that we are clearly not at that point. Workable settlements for the Irish and Gibraltar border problems still have not been found, and negotiations over a new actual trade deal between the UK and the EU have therefore barely got off the ground.

The likelihood is that at some stage over the next six months, the British Government is going to have to ask for an extension to its withdrawal period. I know foam-at-the-mouth Brexiteer fanatics will play merry hell over such a move, insisting it is a cover for cancelling Brexit altogether, but the reality is that we are not going to be ready at the end of March. If we proceed as we are now, the UK will have two options, and both are bad; –

Either the UK crashes out of the EU altogether, and then has to experience the grinding, expensive, bureaucratic frustrations of trading with Europe on World Trade Organisation terms, while having a hard border in Ireland by default, which could trigger a war. Or the UK accepts a bad, under-cooked deal, with an awful lot of kinks and confused minutiae, from the start of April 2019.

The UK really needs to seek an extension, probably at least eight months, before it will be in a position to swallow Brexit without suffering a serious economic ‘choke’. And this, sadly, is where I fear that the UK’s ‘gunboat-diplomacy’ approach to Gibraltar at the outset may come back and bite the Government hard.

If the UK asks for an extension, it can be done, but it needs unanimous approval from the other countries in the EU. Unanimous. As in, agreement by all of them.

Therefore including… Spain.

Now I am not saying that the Spanish Government will definitely be vindictive over the threatening noises made by Michaels Fallon et Howard last year. Pedro Sánchez, the Spanish Prime Minister, is arguably more grown up than the average Tory, and may well choose to be magnanimous. He is an experienced economist moreover, and will know that a deal between the EU and Britain will be in his own country’s interests – especially after years of pointless damage caused to Spain by toxic Austerity. But at the same time, Sánchez might also see an opportunity to ‘strong-arm’ the UK over Gibraltar, knowing as he will that the pressure-of-the-clock is heavier on the British than it is on the rest of the EU.”You want an extension? Okay, give us such-and-such over Gibraltar and I shan’t veto it.” And if the British protest at such opportunism, he can simply shrug and say, “Well, you guys started it!” And he would not be altogether off-his-head to say it.

The stupidity of Conservative rhetoric over the last two years has been a constant nagging worry for anybody following Brexit’s progress. Now the Tories may be in danger of reaping what they sowed. For certain, the Tories deserve no better than to be thrown around in the gales of someone else’s anger. But given the way many in this country have behaved over Brexit over the last three years – some Remainers as well as many Leavers – it is hard to argue that the UK more widely deserves any better either.

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