Thursday, April 06, 2017

How far apart are Britain and the rest of the EU?

There are obviously some areas of serious contention between Britain and the rest of the EU which will make the Brexit negotiations challenging.

One, clearly, is Gibraltar. The idea of giving Spain a veto over whether any deal between Britain and the EU applies to Gibraltar was most unhelpful. But so was some of the rhetoric from people who ought to have known better comparing the reference in the EU draft negotiating position with the Falklands War.

Let's get real here. Britain is 100% committed to protecting the interests of the people of Gibraltar, who voted by an overwhelming majority to remain British (and also voted "Remain" in the EU referendum but it is clear from the comments being made by the government of Gibraltar that the former is more important to them.)

But the last thing which is in the interests of anyone - not Spain, not Britain, not the EU and particularly not the people of the Rock of Gibraltar - is for some bloody fool to start a shooting war over the Rock. It is simply not going to happen.

Spain is not run by a tin-pot military Junta as Argentina was when they invaded and occupied the Falklands: the Spanish government is not going to try to conquer the Rock through a military invasion and Britain is not going to start a shooting war with Spain either. In fact, on almost every Brexit issue other than Gibraltar the Spanish government is one of the most favourably disposed towards Britain of the other 27 member state governments. We are not going to sell the people of Gibraltar down the river but both Britain and Spain want to have good relations with each other and neither country wants our differences over the Rock to prevent that.

The other issue which has the potential to make the Brexit negotiations very difficult is the request from the EU for a large "Alimony payment" from Britain. Some of the figures suggested in the press as the potential "Brexit Bill" the EU is supposed to be asking Britain for are quite absurd.

However, the British government has wisely not ruled out the possibility of some payments from Britain to the EU. For instance, if we want to continue to take part in the EU's very successful science programme, which Britain's great Universities very much wish to do, then clearly we have to contribute to the cost of that programme. There could be a similar cost for any other EU programmes we want to stay part of.

Obviously we have to pay into the EU budget for the two-year period while we are still members and it is not unreasonable for the EU to ask for some level of payment to continue during any transitional period.

Apart from Gibraltar and exit payments, however, I don't think London and Brussels are all that far apart. Dan Hannan makes the same argument here ...

I don't always agree with Dan Hannan MEP on Brexit matters but it seems to me that most of what he says here is right.

When you compare what Theresa May's government says it wants with what the draft EU negotiating position says they want, both sides want a early reciprocal deal protecting the rights of EU nationals in Britain and British nationals in other EU countries. Both sides want to keep security and defence co-operation - it was bizarre that when Theresa May said that she wanted this in her Article 50 letter it was interpreted in some quarters as a threat, but it is quite clear to me that no such threat was intended. Both sides want to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish republic.

(BTW, I know the proper name of the latter country is "Ireland" but talking about a border between Northern Ireland and Ireland sounds ridiculous.)

It is more problematic the extent to which both sides want a good trade deal, but to be honest I don't detect much appetite in Britain or other EU countries for putting up tariff or regulatory barriers to trade in either direction.

I do think we have a serious problem on Gibraltar, and a worse one on the exit payment, but apart from that the two sides are surprisingly close.

The negotiations are going to be more difficult that the more Panglossian Optimists on the Brexiteer sides predicted, but I think that provided we keep calm and negotiate in a sensible and constructive way - pity we can't pass a law requiring Nigel Farage and certain other people to lie down in a darkened room for the next two years -  there is more chance of a reasonable deal than the more dramatic newspaper headlines suggest.

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