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23 November 2018

In future, a Spanish veto on a Brexit deal could be more than just paper talk

The Spanish government cannot veto the withdrawal agreement. But the final trade deal is a different matter. 

By Stephen Bush

How big of a deal is it that Pedro Sánchez, the Spanish Prime Minister, has threatened that if the United Kingdom does not agree to shared sovereignty of Gibraltar, he will “veto Brexit”? 

Well, at this stage of the process, the Spanish government cannot veto the withdrawal agreement, as the Article 50 process will be decided by qualified majority voting – as long as it is supported by 55 per cent of member states representing at least 65 per cent of the EU population between them, it doesn’t matter what the Spanish government does. But one reason why Michel Barnier has aimed for unanimity at this stage in the process is that while no nation can “veto” withdrawal, it can veto the final trade deal, as can the other 27 nations of the European Union. (That’s why anyone who talks about “abandoning the backstop” and negotiating a free trade deal with the EU can be safely ignored – no Irish Taoiseach could remain in office after signing that deal, so they would veto it. Better politically to have a border enforced than to sign one into existence.)

The other sub-plot is that it is widely expected that Sánchez, currently governing without a majority and thanks to a ragbag coalition of diverse parties, will seek his own mandate in May at the same time as Spanish voters go to the polls for local and European elections. So there is an element here of explosive rhetoric being wheeled out for domestic consumption. But so was David Cameron’s promise of an In-Out referendum, and look how that turned out.

It’s perfectly plausible that after May 2019, Spain has a Prime Minister who has made commitments as far as the status of Gibraltar that they cannot walk back on. Don’t forget, either, that while the withdrawal agreement cannot be vetoed by the Spanish government, any extension of Article 50 can be and it may be that its revocation comes with similar hurdles attached. (Until the European Court rules, we don’t know if Article 50 can be revoked or if that revocation can be done solely by the UK or only in concert with the EU27.)

So while it might not matter now, the British government might find itself, at some point in the not too distant future, in a position where the prospect of a Spanish veto is a real one and not just paper talk. 

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The concessions to reassure the Irish government have been politically painful enough for Theresa May, in a situation where more than half of the political class, Remain or Leave, recognise that the Irish border is uniquely sensitive and that the political asks made by Leo Varadkar are not unreasonable and indeed would not change if he were to be replaced by another politician. That’s a very different political experience to a member state of the bloc the United Kingdom used to be a part of using its veto power to force the UK between a choice between ignoring Gibraltarians’ right of self-determination or an economically damaging no-deal Brexit.

Of course, the matter might not arise: it could be that after the Spanish elections the issue quietly goes away. But it’s also possible that the issue won’go away. A more raw and politically painful example of how British sovereignty works after Brexit would be pretty hard to find.