Robert Harneis – TDO -A 60 billion divorce claim and murmurs of war over Gibraltar are just two of the more spectacular items being bandied about as the negotiations for Britain’s exit from the European Union get underway.
Elections and therefore electorates are never far away in any EU country so a quantity of sound and fury signifying not a lot is to be expected.
Spain has got off to a good start by stirring up the Gibraltar issue. The strategic rock has been British since 1704. Spanish governments under pressure periodically use it to rally domestic support and ask for it back. The population routinely says‘no thank you!’ all the more so since Spain is currently threatened with secession by Catalonia, where much of the country’s money is. Spain is claiming that there can be no Brexit settlement until they are satisfied over Gibraltar. The British naturally replied that they would ‘never surrender!’ accompanied by mutterings about the Falklands.
It all started with an item in the European Council’s draft Brexit guidelines, whereby “no agreement between the EU and the UK may apply” to Gibraltar without the agreement of Spain. As the Prime Minister of Gibraltar, Fabian Picardo, more calmly told the BBC “The draft simply says that Gibraltar is off the table in the context of the discussions of the new trade deal and has to be…That’s just the draft at the moment… I’m sure that the UK will be battling for Gibraltar and I’m sure that the people of Gibraltar know that in the context in which we’re dealing we have an important neighbor to the north with whom we have to be in contact.” The chances of those countries that need a friendly settlement because of the amount of favorable trade they have with the UK, allowing a three-hundred-year-old spat with Spain to get in the way are zero.
The question of the border of Northern Ireland with the South is a more serious problem because it could reawaken violent passions nobody wants. The degree of seriousness is confirmed by the quiet nature of the debate on the subject.
An altogether more frothy topic is the staggering demand for 60 billion euros to settle the UK’s outstanding liabilities to the EU, touted by Austrian President Christian Kern. The man obviously has a sense of humor because he went on to say ‘There will be a lengthy debate about the cheque that has to be paid by the U.K. because 60 billion euros is a significant amount of money.’
Günther Oettinger, the EU’s German Budget Commissioner, also apparently told friends recently that the Brexit bill would be “at least” €60bn.German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, in a nod in the direction of his tight-fisted voters, said that ‘In all these [negotiations], there will be no UK rebate,’ but quickly added that the Brexit negotiations should not lead to a ‘totally hostile relationship’between the UK and EU, adding, ‘We must stay friends.’ Indeed ‘we’ must, because there are car factories in Germany that would close down tomorrow without the British market. Germany (and France) have a substantial balance of payment surplus with the UK.
On the British side, there is thetalk of a mere 20 billion. The situation is covered by the magnificently ambiguous article 70 of the Vienna Convention on the law of treaties: --
In the case of a treaty which becomes void and terminates under article 64, the termination of the treaty:
(a) Releases the parties from any obligation further to perform the treaty;
(b) Does not affect any right, obligation or legal situation of the parties created through the execution of the treaty prior to its termination,
So, are all or some of the EU claims avoided by (a) or confirmed by (b)?
Theresa May has already said that Britain will settle its outstanding commitments to the EU but is clearly not about to sign a blank cheque. The situation is, to say the least, far from clear and the amount paid will in the end come down to political bargaining.
The initial ‘great row’ over whether the EU would allow parallel bargaining regarding the settlement of the terms of the breakup and the nature of the future relationship, also turns out to be something of a storm in a teacup. It is difficult to imagine separating discussion of the two issues because they are interdependent. What is acceptable for the breakup may well depend on what is offered for the future and vice versa. As Angela Merkel, herself has said‘I think it’s actually to our advantage to have the United Kingdom define its negotiating stance in great detail and clarity and possibly to alsoclearly outline how it sees its future relationship with the European Union. These have to be parallel processes if you like. You cannot completely cut off the bonds and then after a long winding negotiated process come up with how one sees the future relationship. So, a good negotiating process and a sensible and constructive one I think are in all of our interests.’
Despite these wise words from the chief EU rainmaker we can expect much fuss and ballyhoo with many a twist and turn in the negotiations before Brexit is finally put to bed.