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3 April 2017

The Gibraltar row has undermined the UK’s chances of a good Brexit deal

Diplomatic goodwill among the EU27 will be sapped.

By Stephen Bush

 We don’t want to fight, but by Jingo if we do, we’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, and we’ve got the money too*! We’ve fought the Dagoes before, and while we’re Britons** strong and true, the Spaniards shall not have Gibraltar!

It’s not a belated April Fool; a row over a reference to Gibraltar in Donald Tusk’s draft response to Theresa May’s letter really has triggered talk of war between Britain and Spain. Tory grandee Michael Howard responded to the row by telling Sky’s Sophy Ridge that Theresa May would fight to protect Gibraltar just as Margaret Thatcher fought to protect the Falklands from “another Spanish-speaking country”. Michael Fallon has assured Gibraltar that the British government will go “all the way” in defending the Rock’s right to self-determination.

“Fighting talk on Gibraltar” is the i‘s splash. “We’ll fight for Gibraltar ‘like the Falklands” is the Metro‘s. The Telegraph has gone one better and phoned up a retired rear-admiral to find out if we could still “take” Spain in a fight. (The verdict: “we could still singe the King of Spain’s beard”, says Rear-Admiral Chris Parry.)

It’s worth noting at this point that the line about Gibraltar has no legal force. It hands Spain a veto over the terms of a future trade deal, a right which it has already as an EU member. It does not and cannot change the legal rights and obligations concerning the Rock, as Charles Brasted tells the FT in their explainer of the legalities around the Gibraltar line.

It’s a diplomatic victory for Madrid but it shouldn’t be taken for anything more than a bit of tummy-tickling for Spain’s domestic audience, rather like May’s preamble about the referendum victory in her letter to Donald Tusk was written with one eye to her domestic audience.

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When you ignore the noise, what’s actually happened so far in the Brexit talks is this: two reasonable letters have been sent. A former Conservative leader has embarrassed himself on television. There is still wriggle room for a deal where Britain pays through the nose for the access it needs. That’s about it.

But these minor squalls have two consequences for Britain’s chances of a good Brexit deal. The first is in sapping diplomatic goodwill among the EU27. The second is in increasing the political risk here at home to Theresa May in striking a deal involving large and continuing payments to the European Union.

*For a given value of the word “got”.

**Referendum pending.