by Martin Odoni

Oh dear, what was I saying only a month ago, and back in April 2017?

I do not enjoy saying “I told you so!” At least not when the implications are so dire. But, Conservative Party, I bloody told you so.

Brexit‘ negotiations are facing fresh trouble. Yes, I can imagine what you are thinking. “WHAT?! How’s it possible for Brexit to be in even MORE trouble?!” And that is a fair question after the week we have just witnessed. But sadly, it seems it can. For the Spanish Government, just days ahead of the crucial European Union summit to agree the terms of the UK’s departure, has thrown a ‘Rock’-shaped spanner in the works. Spain is threatening to veto any deal between Brussels and London over the issue of Gibraltar’s sovereignty.

Now, the eleventh-hour timing of this intervention does look somewhat cynical, but the British are in no position to moan about that. Thanks to the breathtaking yobbery of Michaels Howard et Fallon in the spring of last year, the UK was practically inviting Madrid to make trouble at the worst possible moment.

This tax haven could scupper the whole Brexit deal

And let us be in no doubt, this is not some minor portfolio inconvenience.  For most of the text of May’s Brexit plan, a majority agreement at the summit next weekend would be enough to get the deal through to its next stage – scrutiny in Westminster – but there is a hitch. The details over Gibraltar are not a matter for the EU collectively. Last year, Spain got a special clause added in to the European Council’s Brexit guidelines, and it is a very powerful clause; –

No agreement between the EU and the United Kingdom may apply to the territory of Gibraltar without the agreement between the Kingdom of Spain and the United Kingdom

In every way that matters therefore, Spain effectively has a veto so long as Gibraltar is part of any proposed Brexit deal. And as Gibraltar is part of the UK’s European territories, by definition it will always be part of any Brexit deal.

So next weekend, the British contingent at the summit are going to have to go out of their way to be nice to the Spaniards, hoping somehow to persuade them to play along. And after the way Fallon and Howard openly talked about sending the gunboats in last year, that really will not be easy.

For Gibraltarians, the great majority of whom consider themselves to be Britons, and voted to remain in the EU, this development must be a real cause of consternation. The British Government openly insist it will not let Gibraltar be treated any different from the rest of the UK during Brexit, but say that to the Democratic Unionists, and hear them scoff about how Northern Ireland was supposed to be treated no differently until Theresa May revealed her ‘backstop’ plan.

I am not making light of this, or gloating, by the way. On the contrary, I am very anxious. Leaving the European Union was always going to be a risky enterprise, even if handled well. And it has not been handled well. It has been handled so poorly that it has pushed this country to the edge of a cliff, and a no-deal Brexit would send us hurtling off of it. A big extra hurdle has been added, increasing the danger still further. And once again, we have the Conservatives, and only the Conservatives, to blame for the growing mess into which they are dragging us all.

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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.

by Martin Odoni

As I have stated before, I have never been crazy about the European Union. So when the opportunity was presented to vote for the UK to withdraw from it back in 2016, I did give it genuine consideration. Only once it became clear to me that there was no plan among the ‘Brexiteers’ for carrying out what was bound to be a very complicated process did I opt to vote for ‘Remain’. I could see that, even allowing for the uglier features of the EU (if you do not know what they are, just ask the Greeks), the UK would be tying itself in unnecessary knots that it had no idea how to untangle if it went ahead, and to no accurately-defined benefit. We were better off staying in than committing to a leap-into-the-dark.

In short, I did not vote with my heart, I voted with my head.

Therefore, it would be a considerable exaggeration to assume I am a devoted, hardcore, fanatical ‘Remainer’ who is so enraptured by the site of the ring of gold stars on a blue background that it blinds me to the patches of darkness behind it.

EU heart-flag - not really me

I don’t quite regard the EU with this kind of affection, but I know we’re better off inside it than outside it.

The difficulty is, an awful lot of Britons did vote in the Referendum with their hearts, without really engaging their heads enough to understand what the country would be attempting. Therefore, they voted on the basis of what they wanted, not on the basis of what is objectively for the best. They voted against what they hated, not against what is objectively harmful. Or in many cases, they voted for something they loved, not for what is objectively good for them. (Yes, I include voters on both ‘sides’ here.)

“Get over it!!!”

The phenomenon this led to almost immediately was the “Get over it, Remoaner!mantra. I noticed it and commented on it in under a week. This has been the favoured chorus of the triumphant Leave fanatics since the Referendum result was announced, and is almost certain to be sung by at least someone during any online discussion of the many protracted issues raised by Brexit.

I am often given to wonder whether large numbers of Leavers are football fans, as they seem to regard the Referendum result as ‘the end of all discussion’ a little like the final whistle is the end of a match. Their chants of “Get over it!” are barely distinguishable from those of one football team’s supporters jeering at rivals who are upset at a perceived bad refereeing decision.

Now, it is true that there are those who argue quite vociferously for the decision of the Referendum to be overturned. Given what an undiluted dog’s breakfast the Conservatives are making of the Brexit process, there is a lot to be said for that idea. But overturning is not the argument being made by many of the anti-Brexit protesters, and Leave supporters seem to have trouble distinguishing between different groups.

We do actually accept the referendum result, by and large

A great many ‘Remainers’ (if we must deal in name-tags) have, with sadness, accepted the result of the Referendum. Many, if they are like me, cannot bear the thought of going through another one, or of the tidal wave of anger that will spread through anti-EU areas around the country if the whole process is just called off. But that does not mean that the issue is closed off and that there is therefore nothing to discuss. On the contrary, as soon as the country committed to Brexit, it made it compulsory that a number of matters are discussed; they would not have mattered had the Referendum vote gone with Remain. Ireland and Gibraltar are the two most serious of these issues, and also the two most difficult to resolve. But they do not come anywhere near to being all the issues that Brexit has created.

The frustration for people like me is that every time we point out the no-win situation in Ireland, Spanish unhappiness about British sovereignty over Gibraltar, the inevitable and serious economic impact caused by leaving the biggest trading bloc on Earth, the sheer cack-handed bungling of the way the Government is handling the process and their lack of basic diplomatic skills, and all other Brexit-related obstacles that the UK is failing to hurdle, an awful lot of pro-Leavers get the wrong idea as to why we are doing it. They seem to imagine that we are moaning about a penalty being awarded against us when we think our left-back made no contact on their centre-forward before he went to ground. They seem to think we are pointing to television replays showing clear daylight between the players’ legs. And they seem to think that because they love playing the taunting game, Remainers must be trying to taunt them back and devalue their ‘victory’, or even get it overturned.

But this is not the case. This is not about taunting, or even about being competitive as such. It brings us no pleasure whatever to highlight the problems that are piling up. We are not obsessing over a past argument. We are not gloating and opportunistically saying, “Told-ya-so!” We are not demanding the Referendum result be overturned. We are simply pointing out that these problems are critically important, and they need solutions – quickly, given the deadline for Brexit negotiations is effectively October.  The country faces enormous legal and industrial turmoil if the problems are not solved in time. And solutions are a commodity Theresa May’s Government seems powerless to supply, and will also not materialise as a result of silly cries of, “Get over it!!!!” In a manner of speaking, the Referendum result is barely relevant.

This triumphalist shoutdown mentality from so many Leavers is not helpful or constructive. The problems mentioned above, and many others besides, are not going to be solved by just ignoring them, or by casually assuming that everything will just magically become better the instant the UK leaves the EU.  They will not. If the UK does not get a new deal before leaving the EU, British life will become very trying (as if it is not enough so already). That is looking ever-likelier after Michel Barnier, the EU chief negotiator, finally ran out of patience with British non-commitment on the Irish border issue this week.

Brexit platitudes and sound-bites

When Leavers are not telling the concerned to get over it, they retreat into platitudes and sound-bites, either about being able to make our own trade deals, or controlling our borders. While there is at least a semblance of trying to engage in a discussion, these arguments are, alas, nonsense.

Firstly, we are not likely to get more trade as a result of going our own way. The EU has well over five hundred million people in it, making it an enormous market with huge ‘trading gravity’. The UK on its own has about sixty-five million people. Significant, yes, but inevitably it has far less of such a ‘gravitational pull’ in trading markets on its own, due to being only about one-eighth the size. This will immediately make it harder for us to trade with countries farther afield than Europe. Why? Well it really should be obvious. Long-distance trade, even with modern technology, is more expensive and has greater practical difficulties, than short-distance trade i.e. greater fuel costs, huge shipping distances increase the dangers of mechanical failure by either air or sea, or bad weather etc. It is therefore far easier to convince a far-off country to export to you on favourable terms if you can offer it a huge market in which to sell goods, one that guarantees profits that will clearly outweigh the risks.

Saying we ‘can’ make our own trade deals is in fact just a silly bit of spin. The UK will be compelled to make such deals, whether the country likes it or not, and they will be long, slow, complicated, arduous tasks. Given the weakness of our position outside the big trading bloc, many of the longer-distance ones will not be reached on advantageous terms. The UK will have to wait quite some time before it can get any such deals signed too, and literally decades before it has all the deals it would like. During that time, the British people will experience the comparative harshness of operating under World Trade Organisation rules, with high tariffs and heavy customs controls. Other countries will know how desperate the UK will be to escape those rules in a hurry, weakening the British negotiating hand further. The damage WTO conditions could do to the UK economy, moreover, will make it a less attractive trading partner.

Life was easier when we could leave all that to the EU.

As for controlling our borders, as has been pointed out ad nauseam, the UK has never been part of the Schengen Area, and has always decided its own customs and immigration policy. Leaving the EU will therefore have little impact on border controls or immigration levels one way or the other. While arguments about over-population are (arguably) more intelligent – at sixty-five million the UK population has grown rapidly in twenty years and is now getting a little on the high side for an island – they do not appear to be any less xenophobic when challenged for details, as the BBC‘s Nick Robinson has found. When the argument only works as a broad generality, there is clearly some form of prejudice involved.

No, not all Leave arguments are xenophobic, but most are

In any event, while some Leavers get very upset at suggestions that anti-immigration arguments are all racist and xenophobic (I am unconvinced that very many people do suggest that in fact), you would have to be crazy to assume that prejudice against foreigners has not played a big role. The below example of ‘Schrödinger’s Immigrant‘ has been doing the rounds for the last day or so on social media, and it serves as a real question mark against the whole notion of having referendums at all, if the views of someone this ignorant are considered equally valid as those of academics; –

No, I am not suggesting that all Leave voters are this foolish, or even that a particularly large minority of them are. But the fact that it is so evident that this fellow could only be a Leave voter does not say good things about its support base. Too many Leave arguments are based on rumours and delusions, even ones that flatly contradict one another.

Brexiteers do not help themselves

‘Brextremists’, as it is becoming popular to call the most fanatical Leavers, often complain about being insulted and patronised, but study the general level of debate at which they tend to engage, and it is very difficult to sympathise – just ask James O’Brien at LBC Radio. With their mechanical chorus of “Get over it!” Leavers in fact tend to be every bit as patronising, but also more aggressive in manner. They do not help themselves. More important from their perspective, perhaps, is that they also do not help the process of carrying out the policy they have inflicted on the country in the first place.

Intellectual respect is not a right, it must be earned. If Leavers want more of it, they have to try a lot harder. They need to offer fewer ill-defined generalities or platitudes, and they need to construct arguments based on facts in the real world. They need to learn that winning the argument is not an end in itself, and that taunting a counter-position is not enough on its own to de-legitimise it. The problem they have is that the evidence is so overwhelmingly on the side arguing that Brexit will hurt the UK that they cannot analyse and accept facts and remain Leavers at all. Their pride is clearly hurt by the notion that they might be wrong. So their only escape is to carry on thinking with their hearts and not their heads, and that is why they look so foolish to Remainers – at least to the ones who voted on the basis of objective facts.

It is therefore a ‘false-balance’ mistake to argue that Remainers should be ‘less patronising’. The ‘sides’ are not equal, intellectually or in demeanour.

If this sounds patronising to Leavers too, I have only one more thing to say to them.

“Get over it, Brexpostulators.”

I wonder how many of them will now be digging around in dictionaries trying to figure out what that means?

by Martin Odoni

The bellicose blundering of the modern Conservative Party never runs out of ways to amaze and appal me. We are, at the time of writing, a mere four days on from the activation of Article-50, starting the process of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union. Developments over the last few days have made certain that our hapless Prime Minister, Theresa May, will be conducting negotiations from a position of weakness. You would imagine, therefore, that everyone connected to the British Government would realise that what is needed now, in relations with other EU countries, is absolutely seamless, pitch-perfect diplomacy.

What we have seen from Michael Howard, former Conservative leader, now Lord Howard, over the subject of Gibraltar, does not fit the bill. ‘The Rock’, occupied by the English/British since the War Of The Spanish Succession in the early 18th Century, has long been a bone-of-contention between Britain and Spain. With the onset of ‘Brexit’, the issue of Gibraltar’s sovereignty was inevitably going to be raised once more. Howard, this morning, decided to throw his tiny-fraction-of-a-ha’penny’s-worth into the discussion by comparing the scenario to the Falklands War of 1982. He said,

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.

The current Defence Secretary, Sir Michael Fallon, also had something to say about it.

We’re going to look after Gibraltar. Gibraltar is going to be protected all the way because the sovereignty cannot be changed without the agreement of the people of Gibraltar.

In response, a former Ministry of Defence Operational Director, Rear-Admiral Chris Parry, helpfully suggested,

If the Government wants to talk big over Gibraltar… they have to invest appropriately in the military capacity to back that up… We could cripple Spain in the medium term and I think the Americans would probably support us too. Spain should learn from history that it is never worth taking us on and that we could still singe the King of Spain’s beard.

I have one or two questions about these three masters of diplomacy. The first is as follows; –

What in blazes do these idiots think they are doing?

Another one is, why are the imbeciles even saying stuff like this?

What are they trying to accomplish? They are actually talking about using military force to cripple a fellow EU and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation country, all over who controls a confounded tax-haven! At any time, that would be crass stupidity. But they are doing it just days after Article-50 was triggered. This is a time when the UK needs the most careful and skilled diplomatic manoeuvres the country has perhaps ever displayed, or it will face the prospect of an awful severance package, or even no deal at all.

It is like the whole of the UK Government and armed forces have been taken over by a gang of Donald Rumsfelds. Just threatening another country in this  macho-juvenile-on-steroids fashion borders on violating International Law. But more important, the UK is still presently part of the EU and so are the Spaniards. Still more important, both countries are members of NATO. The mutual defence nature of the Treaty means that, were the UK really to take military action against Spain, the rest of NATO would be compelled to intervene, vastly outmatching the British forces. NATO might also choose to expel the UK for attacking a fellow signatory within the alliance, meaning the country would lose the shared military protection it presently enjoys.

Comparisons with the Falklands War are therefore not only offensive (“Spain speaks Spanish, the Argentine Junta spoke Spanish, so obviously they’re all just the same,” seems to be the near-racist reasoning) but downright inaccurate. Argentina was not a member of NATO in 1982 – never has been in fact – nor a member of the EU, for obvious reasons. Spain is both. The implications of a war with Spain today are therefore totally different from those of a war with Leopoldo Galtieri’s Argentina in the 1980s.

For these reasons, an actual war is very unlikely to follow; both the British and Spanish Governments would be too frightened of the high price of being the aggressor. But the inept dearth of political skill or diplomatic instinct in the British making public statements like these at such a delicate time is thoroughly startling. Insensitive and obsolete reminders about the 16th Century terrorism of Sir Francis Drake lends a really yobbish quality to Parry’s remarks. But we can at least give him the benefit of the doubt, given he is not a politician. Howard and Fallon do not have that excuse, and their macho posturings, harking back to the Falklands War, have doubtless left many on Britain’s negotiating team in Brussels slamming their heads on their desks.

With every other move, the British Government seems determined to provoke the EU into hardening its stance on Brexit negotiations, inviting a less and less favourable deal. Is that deliberate, so the British have a way of blaming the EU if-and-when negotiations fail? Maybe, but that prize is far less valuable than getting a good deal in the first place. It is the better prize that the Conservatives seem determined to spurn. It may sound sneaky, but it certainly does not sound intelligent.

With Donald Trump in the White House and the Bullingdon Set all over the British Government, crass anti-intellectualism dominates international relations.

On the subject of Trump, imagine what everyone would be saying right now if he had made remarks like these. Everyone would be right too.

The British should not get away with it either.