Spanish foreign minister fears UK will ‘split apart’ over Brexit

Luke James
Brussels correspondent
A Scottish saltire being flown alongside a Catalan independence flag in Glasgow (Getty)

Spain’s foreign minister fears the UK will “split apart” over Brexit and says his country wouldn’t block Scotland from joining the EU.

Outspoken socialist Josep Borrell declared that he is “very much worried about the unity of the UK” during an interview with Politico in Brussels.

Spain is facing its own constitutional challenge, with many Catalans demanding independence.

But Borrell predicted: “I think the United Kingdom will split apart before Spain.”

Asked whether that was a sign of Spain’s strength or the UK’s weakness, he replied: “It’s a clear sign of the UK’s weakness.”

Spain fears another Scottish referendum would add weight to Catalan calls to be granted a legal vote on independence.

The Catalan government organised a referendum last year, but it was ruled illegal and brutally broken-up by police. Catalan politicians who organised the poll are currently being held in pre-trial detention or have gone into exile.

Despite that, Borrell said Spain would not block a Scottish application to join the EU if an independence vote had been agreed by the UK government.

He said: “Why not, if they leave Britain in accordance with internal regulations? If Westminster agrees, we’re not going to be more papist than the Pope. If Westminster agrees, why should we be against it?”

Spanish prime minister Pedro Sanchez weighed into the debate on whether there should be a second referendum on Brexit, saying last week: “If I was Theresa May, I would call a second referendum — no doubt.”

Spanish foreign minister Josep Borrell meeting the Queen in 2005 as the then president of the European Parliament (Getty)

But Borrell – formerly the president of the European Parliament – contradicted his boss on Tuesday, saying it should only happen if there is a “really big demand.”

Citing the double referendums held in Ireland on the Lisbon treaty and in Denmark on the Maastricht treaty, he said: “I don’t like second referendums because in Europe we have a record of people voting something that was not the thing that was, lets say, what the authorities would like, and then [the authorities] convince them to vote again.

“It’s something that doesn’t look very much democratic.”

It’s the second time the Spanish politician has set the Brexit debate alight in as many days.

Borrell warned on Monday that Spain would not sign-off the Brexit deal without changes to the withdrawal agreement’s provisions on Gibraltar, a British Overseas Territory on Spain’s south coast.

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Spain is unhappy that the draft agreement published last week does not include a previous EU commitment that any deal on the future relationship would not apply to Gibraltar without the consent of Spain.

Borrell said Spain “will not be able to say OK” to the text without changes before Sunday, but played down the chances of a veto on the deal, saying: “They could go over [us] because consensus is not unanimity.”

However, Borrell’s comments once again contradicted his leader’s views. Mr Sánchez today told a forum in Madrid: “As things stand today if there are no changes regarding Gibraltar, Spain will vote no on Brexit.”

Gibraltar chief minister Fabian Picardo said he has received assurances from Theresa May that the deal will cover “the whole UK family.”

“It does not come as a surprise to us that Madrid should seek to raise new Gibraltar issues at the last minute in our negotiations to leave the EU,” he added in a statement. “Raising issues at the eleventh hour is a well known tactic that has been used by Spain in the past.”

MORE: Spain threatens to veto Brexit deal over Gibraltar