Among the arguments that persuaded British people like me to oppose Brexit was that it would create a raft of new diplomatic headaches the UK does not need, in exchange for an anemic sort of new “freedom.”
True, the European Union is a mess: I do not think it can survive into the next decade without radical upheaval. But it was always inevitable that, if the British were the ones to break up the party, our spurned partners would punish us. And they are.
Even as Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government grapples with the Covid-19 pandemic, it is confronted by a number of prospective crises that represent fallout from Britain’s departure from the EU.
First up is tension between Britain and Spain over Gibraltar, a running sore for the Spanish since Britain acquired “the Rock” at the entrance to the Mediterranean by conquest in 1704. It is a historical anomaly that the Union Flag still flies over this 2.6-square-mile enclave, albeit no more so than the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, or Spain’s North African toehold at the tip of Morocco.
The Spanish find it insulting that the British cling to this fragment of their country. There have been repeated outbreaks of feuding, ranging from exchanges of insults to border closures. The Rock has endured several sieges, including one in 1727-28.
The UK government for years found it politic to ignore Gibraltar’s shady reputation as a mecca for money laundering and online gambling.
The British and Spanish became somewhat more courteous to each other about the issue when they were fellow EU members, but Madrid has never relinquished its claim. A Gibraltar settlement was postponed in the 2019 Brexit treaty negotiations, but the European Commission in Brussels is proposing a new deal, whereby the Rock and Spain would enjoy a customs union and friction-free border, under EU rules.
The proposal would have almost no practical implications, but is anathema to Johnson’s nationalist government. Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, asserts that the EU proposal “seeks to undermine the UK’s sovereignty over Gibraltar.” All that is certain about this dispute, concerning a territory with but 34,000 residents, is that it needlessly amplifies aggravation between Britain and Spain.
Logic suggests that the UK should cede the territory, which no longer has any possible strategic value. I urged this on Douglas Hurd, foreign secretary in the 1990s, when he bemoaned to me the hair-raising secret service reports detailing criminal activity bankrolled through Gibraltar.
But I am not a politician. The view of successive British governments about such things — including the refusal to surrender the Falkland Islands to Argentina — is that to quit Gibraltar would enrage jingoistic opinion at home for no political benefit.
Thus I am ruefully confident that Britain will still lord it over the Rock and its most famous inhabitants, a colony of Barbary macaques on its lofty eminence, visited by generations of British sailors and tourists, when I am carted away to the grave. The more neurotic a nation becomes about its place in the world, the more likely it is to cling to micro-symbols.
Further north, the balmy weather brings across the English Channel from France a flotilla of boats and endless ferry-loads of trucks delivering illegal migrants — roughly 8,000 already this year, four times the total for all of 2019 — most from Africa.
The French are struggling to cope with even larger numbers of economic fugitives, and are no doubt delighted to see as many as possible journey onward to the land of the “Rosbifs.”
It was widely predicted — by French President Emmanuel Macron among others — that Brexit would remove the last vestige of French support for curtailing cross-Channel migrant traffic. So it has proved. In July, the British pledged more than $75 million to France to step up its border patrols, but no sensible person expects this will end the daily regatta headed toward the White Cliffs of Dover.
What was called, a century back, the Entente Cordiale has become much less than cordial.
And so to Ireland, focus of the most serious of the border disputes besetting the Westminster government, and one threatening the re-ignition of communal violence. Going back to the 2016 Brexit referendum, Johnson and his colleagues have dismissed the obvious impossibility of reconciling Brexit with the terms of the Irish Good Friday peace agreement, as a mere technicality.
Those who know Ireland well have always recognized as reckless Tories’ insouciance. The 1998 Good Friday deal, ending three decades of strife, acknowledged the legitimate aspirations of Northern Irish republicans to pursue a united nation — by peaceful means instead of terrorist warfare.
The Brexit treaty signed by Johnson’s government kept open the border between the Republic of Ireland to the south — still an enthusiastic EU member — and Northern Ireland by agreeing to enforce customs checks on goods that move across the Irish Sea to and from the UK mainland. This is to avoid compromising the integrity of the EU single market.
Northern Ireland’s vociferous unionists, however, feel betrayed by the Mother Country, left to become part of the Irish Republic. There has been rioting in working-class Protestant areas. Many refuse to accept the agreed phase-in of customs checks in the Irish Sea, arguing that these infringe their rights as UK citizens, and even consider the entire Irish Protocol a breach of the Good Friday agreement.
Rory Montgomery, a former Irish representative to the EU, wrote: “Trust in this British government’s good faith, never high, is now minimal … on all sides in Northern Ireland.”
For good reason: Many Conservative Party leaders have come to support the unionists’ stance that allowing the European Court of Justice to arbitrate disputes over the Irish Protocol is a breach of UK sovereignty. David Frost, Johnson’s intemperate Brexit minister, demands a rewrite of the Brexit agreement’s Irish customs provision. Since Frost himself negotiated that treaty, this is pretty rich.
Johnson declared recently that Northern Ireland is a part of the UK in exactly the same fashion as are its other constituent parts: England, Scotland and Wales. This is simply untrue. No UK prime minister since Irish Partition in 1921 has sought to pretend such a thing. Modern British governments have acknowledged that Northern Ireland remains a part of the UK — as long as that is the wish of its own people. And polls have shown a majority in the north now favors holding a referendum on exactly that proposition.
The disagreement over the Brexit treaty protocol is fraught with perils for both Northern Ireland and the UK government. International opinion, notably including that of the government of US President Joe Biden, is unlikely to favor Johnson. He is demanding changes in a treaty his ministers negotiated and his country signed, simply because it is proving impossible to reconcile it with his domestic political promises.
Unless Britain treads very carefully indeed, which recent events suggest that this government is not good at, militant Irish Republicanism could revive, the killing on the streets resume.
In all this, we must retain a sense of proportion. In the grand scheme of things — compared with US confrontation with China, Afghanistan threatened with anarchy, Russian disruption of the democratic West — none of the friction points between Britain and the EU threatens an immediate or severe crisis. It was always inevitable that Brexit would generate issues and disputes.
But the tensions involving Gibraltar, migration and Northern Ireland highlight the perils facing Johnson’s nation as a consequence of having made the historic choice to go it alone. The standard-bearers for Brexit made grandiose claims that it would “set Britain free” to develop its full potential. But freedom can also bring loneliness. Johnson is accumulating foreign adversaries — not quite enemies, but people who do not wish him well — much faster than he is winning allies and admirers.