The Guardian view on Brexit divorce: full of needless but expected provocations | Editorial

Editorial
European Council president Donald Tusk holds Theresa May’s Brexit letter in Brussels. Photograph: Yves Herman/Reuters

This week Britain said goodbye to the European Union with a letter of divorce, which upset continental leaders with unsubtle demands that they open their markets up for trade on friendly terms or we might not be able to continue military cooperation. On Friday the EU had its chance to respond to British threats and, depressingly, did so in kind. Its leaders alighted on a piece of geopolitical real estate, Gibraltar, whose sovereignty has long been contested by Spain. The tiny British overseas territory, which keeps watch over the only entrance to the Mediterranean from the Atlantic, is important to the Royal Navy and as a listening post. The EU has made a contentious border issue a bargaining counter. This, sadly, is an expected but needless provocation.

One suspects the EU is posturing. The other two parts of the UK which share land borders with the EU and remain neuralgic for Westminster – Northern Ireland and the 254sq km of military bases in Cyprus – were singled out by the EU for “imaginative” solutions that retain the status quo. Separation after four decades of marriage will come at a cost. Both sides are likely to end up poorer, enervated by two years of custody battles. Neither will achieve all they want: Britain won’t get the same benefits of being in the single market outside of it. Europe will be less than the sum of its remaining parts. The EU says a “comprehensive” free trade deal needs equivalence agreements in fiscal, social and environmental rules. Given how Theresa May interprets the Brexit vote, this represents too great a loss of sovereignty. But it would not rule out a UK-EU trade deal. There is also a negotiation about negotiations, setting their sequence to gain the upper hand on the substance. The EU wants first to sort out the exit bill and citizens’ rights. The UK will do so if it can also have a parallel discussion about a post-Brexit partnership. Article 50, the instrument that triggered Britain’s departure, is unambiguous: leaving the EU must take into account the framework for a future relationship. Both sides are digging in. It feels like any divorce – only the lawyers win.

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