Why not try diplomacy?
“UP YOURS SENORS!” reads today’s front-page of the Sun accompanied by a picture of the Rock of Gibraltar in Union Jack colours.
Aside from the fact that the editors were evidently too lazy to put a tilde on the letter ‘n’, which is a pet peeve of mine, it made me wonder how war in Europe can actually be discussed in 2017.
The reason, of course, is former Conservative leader Michael Howard publicly stating Britain could go to war against Spain over Gibraltar. Adding fuel to the fire he made an irresponsible comparison with the Falklands War Britain fought against Argentina in 1982.
I’m not particularly concerned about a tabloid blowing things out of proportion to sell newspapers or a political has been clinging on to relevance by suggesting gunboat diplomacy.
What’s troubling is the British government’s response to Lord Howard’s statements and its diplomacy in general. Theresa May’s cabinet demonstrates the kind of diplomacy that got David Cameron nowhere in Europe.
If May doesn’t learn from Cameron’s mistakes, it’ll be a Herculean task to get a good Brexit deal.
Aggression is incompatible with diplomacy
With Britain terminating its membership of the EU after 40 years, it was always likely to provoke a bit of tension.
Politicians on both sides of the Channel have been making strong statements about the Brexit talks and what future relations should look like. The trick is for official parties negotiating the deal not to get involved in a game of mud-slinging.
While it is true that the spat was provoked by a draft of the EU Council’s Brexit guidelines stating Britain and Spain have to resolve the issue of Gibraltar separately, the matter needn’t have escalated if it had been handled more tactfully.
But instead of nipping the controversy in the bud, senior members of the British cabinet were immediately up in arms.
Defence Secretary Michael Fallon argued that “Gibraltar will be protected all the way”, while Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was quick to emphasise the government’s “implacable and rock-like” support for Gibraltar.
Their comments might sound harmless but if they’d simply laughed off the suggestion of war like their PM did, they could’ve kept this non-issue from turning into an issue.
The PM handled the Gibraltar story well, but she’d already made a tactical error in her letter that formally informed Brussels about Britain’s retreat from the Union.
By repeatedly lumping economic co-operation and security together in the letter, May immediately caused irritation on the other side of the table. European leaders criticised May for implying a failure of trade talks would impact security arrangements.
It shouldn’t come as a shock that German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande immediately shot down the British PM’s demand to start trade talks alongside Brexit.
Britain’s exit negotiations will have to be agreed upon first, Merkel and Hollande responded in unison, which was a considerable blow to the British government.
It’s still early days, but the past week has already raised significant questions about whether this government is equipped to deliver the best possible deal.
Here’s the thing: diplomacy has always been the key to getting things done in Europe and it won’t be different for Brexit.
Diplomacy is what got Britain its opt-outs on various high-profile EU policies like the single currency and the passport-free Schengen area.
Diplomatic tact is what helped Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown subtly block undesirable candidates for top EU posts. The lack of it made Cameron’s efforts in Europe often fruitless and sometimes embarrassing.
Cameron’s EU renegotiation was a farce. Many saw it as proof of the EU’s deep-rooted resistance to change and the inability of individual members to make a difference.
While I won’t say that these weren’t factors that played a role, I’d like to point out that May’s predecessor had made several capital errors that cost him a lot of good will among European partners.
Cameron’s personal attacks on then Commission president candidate Jean-Claude Juncker didn’t go down well in Europe and he created even more bad blood by publicly scolding his European partners after Juncker was elected to the post.
Perhaps the EU sometimes looks like an impossible institution of 28 (soon 27) members, but if there’s one thing that’ll make all members stick together it’s when you appear to threaten the bloc or an individual member.
You could see it recently when the EU supported the Netherlands in its recent row with Turkey, and it’ll similarly back Spain if the Gibraltar issue goes any further.
May’s cabinet would do well to steer clear of turning the negotiations into a Mexican stand-off and should instead be stressing the importance of Britain and the EU parting ways without animosity.
The way forward to achieve a good deal won’t be to continuously seek the road of confrontation. Only a conciliatory tone will find a willing ear in Europe.