Be careful what you wish for, Theresa – a win on the Irish backstop will only expose Britain’s weaknesses

Sean O'Grady

As the old saying goes, “Be careful what you wish for, it might just come true”, and it’s one that Theresa May should be acutely aware of as she attempts to persuade the European Union to reopen the UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement. For while she may solve the Irish backstop issue, she might also reopen the difficult question of Gibraltar, a far more exposed and threatened British interest than Northern Ireland, and end up surrendering British fishing waters, and paying more for the divorce bill.

Though vanishingly unlikely, what if the EU Commission actually turned around and said: “Yes, OK. Angela Merkel’s rung up and asked us to be nice, and Leo Varadkar says we can ease off. So you can have your new wording on the Irish backstop to replace the clauses that are in there. Mr Rees-Mogg can draft it if you like.”

But then, they might go on to ask for things we do not like.

“However, in return for those concessions, we have a few ideas of our own… we can have more time if you like, to discuss things…”

In other words, if the prime minister wants the EU to give anything, then, in the balance of things, the EU would like something back.

First, they might well press for more concessions on Gibraltar. This was the last-minute hitch in the talks last November, settled by a rather untidy, but legally binding, exchange of memoranda. They do not, though, guarantee Gibraltar’s future security.

It may not have been a sloppy piece of drafting when the EU recently described Gibraltar as a “British colony”, because that sets it firmly in a certain, pejorative, category of territories, and, of course, will help stick it back on the agenda of the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation. While Britain was in the EU it could enjoy broad EU support for the current constitutional status of Gibraltar, as voiced by the people there. (Just as the UK was in a strong position when Spain was applying to join the EU in the 1980s.) That will soon be gone, as the balance of power over Gibraltar between the UK and the EU/Spain has been disastrously turned upside down. Humiliation beckons.

Like Ireland, Spain has powerful allies now. Allow me to introduce you to Manfred Weber, a German MEP who is leader of the European People’s Party group, the largest in the European parliament. His name crops up in the speculation about who will replace Jean-Claude Juncker as head of the EU Commission. Mr Weber argues that if the UK’s demand to “reopen this treaty” were agreed then “everything is reopened”.

In an interview in Germany, he added that if so, then “we talk again about Gibraltar, we talk again about the fisheries policies, we talk again about how much Great Britain must pay when they are leaving the EU”.

Meanwhile, the Spanish prime minister, Pedro Sanchez, said last November that “Shared sovereignty is something we need to talk about, as is the issue of the airport [the joint use of which was dropped from the first stage of negotiations],“ adding that he expects these “sensitive issues” could be dealt with “in a bilateral negotiation” between the UK and Spain.

Recently sources in Madrid have said: “In every agreement reached with Great Britain there will be an asterisk which explains that the deal will not affect Gibraltar.

“After Brexit, Spain wants to include in writing in every document signed with the EU that it has nothing to do with Gibraltar, which should be based on a different relationship.

“This strategy will be followed in all agreements that will be signed.”

Whatever has been said, soon the Spanish parliament and government, along with all the other relevant national and regional ones around the EU, will have a veto on that future UK-EU treaty. Spain can veto anything it doesn’t like on Gibraltar. We may be sure it will.

In fact, all of this simply highlights why much of the current argument about the UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement misses the point – which is that the future trade and security treaty is the important bit, and it hasn’t been negotiated beyond a foggy “political declaration”.

Whatever happened to “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”? We are about to lose all of what little bargaining power we have. We are going into a “blind Brexit”, in which the only British power left will be to threaten a trade war, one we would lose.

So when Juncker and Donald Tusk tell Ms May the deal is not open for renegotiation they are doing her a huge favour. She herself has warned for many months, before her U-turn, that we risk other parties reopening thorny issues. She knows the risks very well.

No MP should vote for Ms May’s deal or any version of it, because it only comprises a half of what the total package should be – and the less important half too. The right answer is to seek an extension of Article 50, a pause, in order to get the whole package nailed down – not least to protect Gibraltar as well as Northern Ireland and other vital interests. Two years was an arbitrary time period – it just takes longer.

Or, if that is not possible, we must have a second referendum on what we already know – that Brexit has turned into a huge mess. Public opinion is turning, inexorably, towards that conclusion.